They came up over the rise and saw the cow munching tall field grass. It was unattended, so they decided to have it for lunch.
Orsle, who went dressed as a bear, hid herself behind an oak tree.
Tae, who went dressed as a fox, skittered low on her belly through the tall grass. She circled around in front of the cow, growling and oozing with the scent of predatory danger.
The cow stopped chewing and looked up. Its nostrils twitched and it caught Tae’s scent. It spooked and ran. Tae herded it toward the tree, and, being so afraid of Tae, the cow didn’t catch the scent of Orsle before passing the tree. Orsle stepped out and broke the cow’s neck with a massive fist.
The cow fell in a heap and let out its final breath.
Orsle and Tae knelt and performed the ritual of thanks for their distant sister, Docen, who went dressed as a cow.
They tore into the cow, Orsle into the thick muscle of the neck and Tae into the tender guts.
Their hunger sated, they licked each other clean and lay near their kill. Now drowsy, they napped in the shade of the thick-boled oak.
A whistle pierced the somnolent comfort of hillside, but neither Orsle nor Tae heard it. No matter how keen their ears; full bellies, a gentle breeze, and soft earth proved too comforting.
The scream was enough to wake them, however, and they sprung instantly from sleep into battle stances: fangs bared and claws curving and ready to rend flesh.
The boy ran, but Tae proved swifter — as she always did — and dragged him back.
Orsle put a heavy paw on his chest, but the boy didn’t stop crying, until the oddity of Orsle’s transformation shocked him into silence. Her fur split up the middle and she emerged, becoming nothing more than a massive woman wearing the skin of a bear upon her back.
The boy’s eyes flicked to Tae, and she did the same as her sister, but she was waifish and sly-eyed.
“Are you finished making that racket?” Orsle asked.
The boy took a gasping breath and said, “Yes.” He was slight with delicate black curls, and, judging by his clothes, the son of a farmer. “I can barely breathe.”
Orsle relaxed the pressure, but didn’t remove her hand. “What is your name?”
“Corvin.” He looked from one woman to the other. “What are you going to do to me?”
Tae and Orsle smiled at each other, and they laughed, but they stopped when Corvin started crying again.
“You cry too much for a boy,” Tae said.
“My father is going to whip me until my back is nothing but bloody shreds.”
“Why?” Orsle asked.
He pointed at the bloody mess. “Because I lost our best milking cow.”
Orsle and Tae stood up.
“We are sorry,” Orsle said, though Tae didn’t look sorry. “We know the ways of Men, and can offer you something in trade for your cow.”
“Truly?” Corvin stood and brushed the grass from his gray woolen tunic. “Father would be happy with a handful of silver.”
“We have something better to offer you,” Orsle said.
Tae frowned. “No, you stupid boy, one of us is going to make you a man.”
Orsle and Tae dropped their skins and stood naked in the sunlight. Orsle was voluptuous and tall, with thick gold hair — the kind of woman that one falls into. Tae was lithe and small, with auburn hair — the kind of woman that one falls on.
Corvin took a step back, a look of horror on his face. “I…I can’t.”
“You don’t look old enough to be betrothed,” Tae said, advancing with sinuous steps. “And it’d take a girl with discerning tastes to appreciate your…delicate charms.”
Orsle moved in, her arms open. “Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.”
“I won’t,” Tae said.
Corvin slumped onto the grass and his face turned red. “You don’t understand. I can’t. You aren’t…” He looked off into the distance, back in the direction he’d come from.
Orsle and Tae exchanged a confused look. Both were beautiful. Neither man nor boy had ever refused their offer. Both of them could do with more fox and bear daughters to roam the forests of the land, but it was obvious that the little man in Corvin’s breeches hadn’t stirred.
Corvin sniffled and plucked the grass near his feet. “You see. The reason I wasn’t minding the cows. The reason this one got away, was that I was hiding in a tree by the lake, watching Rogett and his sisters swim.”
Orsle knelt near him. “I don’t understand.”
“They swim without clothes and I like looking.” He looked up at Orsle. “But I don’t look at Rogett’s sisters. I look at him.”
Orsle and Tae took up their skins and donned them.
“Then we have nothing to offer you,” Tae said.
“No,” Corvin said.
“They how will we repay our debt?” Orsle asked.
Corvin looked at the hard-packed dirt of the road nearby. “Where are you going?”
“To the aid of one of our Sisters,” Tae said.
“Take me with you.”
“No!” Tae said.
“Hush,” Orsle said. “We owe him a debt.” She looked at Corvin. “Won’t you miss your family, and be missed by them?”
“I have brothers and sisters more able than me. And these strange thoughts, these strange urges, will only make them hate me. I’m sure of it.”
Tae said, “The way is hard, and our quest dangerous. You’re too weak to be of use.”
“You owe me a chance to prove myself.”
Orsle and Tae exchanged a look. “All right,” Orsle said.
The fox, the bear, and the boy stripped the cow of meat, using its own peeled skin as a sack, and took to the road.
Some days later, when they’d run out of meat, they stopped at a farm nestled in a verdant, crooked valley. Orsle had eaten most of the meat, to keep her bulky form healthy and hale, leaving Tae and Corvin with little more than scraps and sinew.
To Harll, an egg-shaped man covered in coarse gray hair, who was quick to smile in a way that reduced his eyes to crinkled slits of joy, they offered work in exchange for food and a night’s
Orsle wrested rough boulders from Harll’s field, Tae convinced the local foxes to steal chickens from the farmer in the next valley and Corvin climbed atop the roof of Harll’s stone cottage and wove new heather into the thatch.
When the work was done, and the food they’d earned warmed their bellies, Orsle, Tae and Corvin lay in a half-circle near the wide stone hearth of Harll’s kitchen. The farmer, his wife and their daughters slept above in Harll’s vast bed. All of them were egg-shaped like Harll, but they lived a life steeped in love and comfort. He called them his “highborn ladies,” and treated them as such.
A fat log popped and crackled in the hearth, sending a stray ember circling through the air. It twirled and came to rest, now cool ash, on the blankets pulled up around Corvin’s chin.
“When are you going to tell me where we’re going?” Corvin asked.
Tae let out a hiss. “If you’d let enough time pass between asking me about it, I’d have come to a decision already.”
“I don’t understand,” Corvin said.
“Your lack of understanding has many layers, like those of a moon-sized onion.”
“Don’t tease the boy,” Orsle said. “Just tell him.”
“Why me?” Tae asked.
Orsle’s answer was nothing more than a snore. And like all things regarding Orsle, her snoring was muscular and voluptuous.
Tae and Corvin dragged their bedding outside, into the cool night under the stars. Even with the stone wall to guard them, Orsle’s snoring would keep them awake until their hearts and minds gave out. They’d grown used to it, and didn’t envy Harll and his “highborn ladies” their restless night.
When they were settled on the soft grass in their nests of blankets, Tae took in a deep breath and said, “I suppose it’s time I tell you.”
“I promise to stop asking, if you just tell me.”
Tae sat up, crossed her legs, and hitched the blankets up over her shoulders. “There’s a problem with the crows.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you just promise to stop asking questions?” Tae pulled the blankets over her face and growled. “Your curiosity is annoying.”
“I’m sorry,” Corvin said. He hooked a finger under the hem of the blanket and pulled it up, revealing Tae’s sharp, stern face. “Please continue. I won’t interrupt you again.”
“We Sisters started seeing the signs some days ago. Crows stopped flying straight, started cawing backwards, started laying eggs filled with nothing but empty bones. None of these things are permanent, mind you. They’re just signs of something gone astray. We sent word around, and nobody had heard from or about Avei the Crow Sister in some time. The Sisters gathered and made a decision. And now, Orsle and I are searching.”
Corvin squeaked and clapped his hands over his mouth.
“Go ahead,” Tae said. “Ask.”
“Well, you’ve been following the same road since I joined you, and you haven’t stopped to ask anyone questions, so…you must be near the end of your journey.”
“Maybe you aren’t as stupid as I thought.” Tae grinned. “Maybe.”
“We got word that a woman of a certain disposition and fitting a certain description had taken up with a lord who rules a barony north of here. We are going to investigate.”
Tae lay down and pulled he blankets over her head.
“But — ”
“Enough!” Tae said, her voice muffled by the blankets. “Go to sleep.”
Ever northward, they trudged through snowy mountain passes, wound their way through deep valleys and forded rivers — Tae and Corvin riding on Orsle’s shoulders when the water ran too deep. Eleven days after waking to a hearty breakfast at Harll’s farm, they arrived in the Barony of Paterness.
A wide, green vale spread out before them. The narrow tributary that they’d been following for the last three days fed into the winding waters of the Greybare River, joining its sleepy flow westward toward the Great Agress Sea.
Paterness was a loose, widespread collection of farms encircling thatch-roofed stone houses that clustered on the south side of the Greybare. From their high vantage point at the apex of the vale,
Orsle, Tae, and Corvin watched as the long barges were filled with grain and sent downriver to the port. At the western edge of town stood the seat of the Paterness Barony. The stubby keep was surrounded by a single wall, but the drawbridge was down and the portcullis was raised.
“No need to go through town,” Tae said. “Let’s circle around to the castle.”
Orsle pointed at the town with a meaty hand. “If we went through town, we could get a sense of what Baron Paterness is like before we meet him.”
“Why waste our time?” Tae asked. “We know where our sister is.”
“But still. The Baron is an unknown. He’s likely the most powerful man in the region.”
“I don’t see why that’s important.”
Orsle turned to Corvin. “What do you think?”
“My opinion on the matter isn’t important,” Corvin said.
“I agree,” Tae said, frowning.
“I don’t.” Orsle said. “While you’re traveling with us, you’re one of us.”
Tae growled and Orsle returned it.
Corvin stepped back. “Please. Don’t fight over me.”
“Sisters fight,” Tae said. “It’s the way of things.”
Corvin looked at Tae and Orsle, considering their ways, and then how likely they’d be to forgive him. “In order to bring our journey, and your obligation to me, to a speedy end, I vote we head directly for the castle.”
Tae’s canines grew and she hissed. Corvin was confused. He’d agreed with her, why was she so irritated?
“Sorry,” Corvin said. “I thought that’s what you wanted.”
Orsle placed a thick hand on Corvin’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. She planned to be angry no matter what you said.”
Tae pulled her fox skin up over her head, dropped to all-fours, and darted away.
“What did I do wrong?” Corvin asked.
“Nothing,” Orsle said. “And everything.”
They followed Tae as she wound her way through down through the brush and old oak trees. At the bottom of the vale they found Tae standing, still a fox, on a tall crag of stone. Orsle reached up and ran her fingers through Tae’s rusty fur. Tae nuzzled her hand and dropped to the ground, a woman once again.
“Do you still want to go through town?” Tae asked.
“No,” Orsle answered. “You and Corvin are right. We need to focus on finding our sister.”
They skirted the town, walking through fields and pastures, until they came to the rough stone wall of the castle. They walked along in the cool shadows of the looming stone until they came to the gate. They stood for a while, watching people going in and out.
“What are we waiting for?” Tae asked.
“Shouldn’t we be a bit more…stealthy?” Orsle asked.
Tae sighed. “Why? We know why we’re here, they don’t.”
“People seem free to come and go as they please,” Corvin said. “That says a lot about the Baron. Doesn’t it?”
Tae bared her canines and Corvin chose to stay out of the decision-making discussions from now on. Though, now that they were near the end of their journey, he’d have fewer of these discussions to join, fewer chances to make Tae angry. A slow surge rose up from the pit of Corvin’s stomach and became a sob.
He’d grown used to Tae’s anger, her grudging acceptance. And, grudging or not, it was still acceptance. Camaraderie had grown between Orsle, Tae, and Corvin since they’d met at the outskirts of his farm — a feeling of unity that Corvin hadn’t felt at home, a place where he’d always felt like an extra mouth and no more than an extra hand. His family didn’t hate him, and they weren’t exactly cold, but the focus had always been on brawn and work and eventual marriage to nearby daughters, to expand Father’s influence: all things for which Corvin was ill-suited.
His time on the road with Orsle and Tae, while difficult in its own way, felt more natural to his questing, curious spirit. He didn’t want it to end. He didn’t want Orsle and Tae to leave him behind, only to go home and receive his just punishment.
The sob soon turned to tears.
“Look what you’ve done, Tae.”
Tae let out a long breath. “What a useless weakling.”
Corvin stopped sobbing and balled his fists, but he stopped himself from punching Tae. Instead, he flicked the end of her long nose with a hard fingernail. Tears appeared instantly in her eyes and she yipped. She covered her nose and ran a few steps along the wall, her face turned away.
Orsle guffawed. “The sleek and ever dangerous Tae brought low by a finger!”
Tae tightened into an angry ball and fumed.
“You’d better apologize,” Orsle whispered.
Corvin took a moment to gather his courage and crept toward Tae. He crouched near her and stroked the scarlet fur of her fox cloak. She tightened and flinched away.
“I’m sorry,” Corvin said. “What you said was too close to the truth. It cut too deeply.”
Tae’s voice was a sinister growl. “Leave me alone.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, or to embarrass you. Just to silence you. Please forgive me.”
Orsle knelt near them, eclipsing the sun. “We’ve done worse to each other, Tae, and we still love each other like sisters.”
“He’s not my sister, nor is he my brother,” Tae said.
“But I could be, if you’d let me,” Corvin said.
Tae uncoiled. “Never. Not with that thing hanging between your legs.”
Corvin looked to Orsle. “Is that true?”
“Yes.” She cupped his cheek with her huge palm, her fingers wrapping around the back of his head. “There are no men among the Sisters.”
“I see,” Corvin said, standing and heading for the gate. “Let’s go get your sister so you can get rid of me and get on with your lives.”
By the time Corvin reached the gatehouse, Orsle and Tae were with him, and as they walked through, Corvin realized how rough and wild they looked: a road-worn boy with tousled hair and dirty feet, framed by two women wearing nothing but animal skins.
People gave them a wide berth. Some carried baskets of bread, and some baskets of fish. A group of boys corralled a little herd of pigs and a group of girls chased chickens into a wall-side coop.
Others tied ribbons to a long framework hallway of woven willow branches.
Orsle stopped a passing child. “What’s going on?”
“Our lord is marrying his lady tonight,” the girl said and curtsied.
“If we’d delayed, even a day,” Tae said, “it’d have been too late.”
“Don’t have another of your fits,” Orsle said. “We got here in time.”
They moved further in, toward the stout keep set into the northeast corner of the wall. A single sentry smiled, but then sidestepped in front of the door. He wore a pointed helmet and carried a spear. The yellow fish on his tunic matched the dark iron trout that’d been forged into the ends of the thick strap hinges spanning the door.
“Hold, please,” he said. “Do you have business inside?”
The doubtful look on his face showed that he had an answer in mind already.
Orsle gave a slight nod. “We have business with the Lord Baron’s betrothed.”
He chewed the end of his brown mustache. “You’ll excuse me if found that a mite hard to believe.”
Tae growled and dipped, but Orsle stopped her from dropping to all fours with a hand on her shoulder. Corvin took a short step back. He was familiar with Tae’s temper.
“Unlikely as you think it might be,” Orsle said. “It’s the truth. You don’t have to let us in. Just tell her that two of her Sisters are waiting outside.”
The Sentry looked them up and down. “Sisters?” He shook his head. “You don’t even look to be related to each other, and I can’t see how either of you resemble our Lady Avei.”
Tae tried to drop again, but Orsle held her up. Corvin took another step back.
“We are less sisters and more members of a sisterhood,” Orsle said. She let go of Tae’s shoulder and stroked her hair.
Corvin saw that the gesture did little to comfort the sentry. The man’s face twisted with disgust.
“I’m sure that whatever a bunch of wild, near-naked sisters get up to in the wicked deep of the forest is of little interest to our Lady Avei.”
Orsle dipped her chin and the bear head slipped over her face. She roared, and thick hair rippled out along her skin as she clapped the sentry on the side of the helmet with a meaty paw. The man’s spear thudded to hard-packed dirt and he tumbled, doing a few ragdoll cartwheels, off to the left.
People screamed and scattered, and sentries ran from their posts along the top of the wall toward the stone stairways that led to the ground.
Tae circled Orsle, her ears flat, growling.
Corvin didn’t know what to do. He was sure that if he ran, nobody would remember the anonymous boy who’d arrived with the beast women. Newly born loyalty, and the current distance between him and anyone he knew, bound him to the spot he occupied. He picked up the spear and took his place beside Orsle and Tae. Tae spared Corvin a quick glance, and when she saw him wielding the spear, her
ears relaxed a fraction and her sword-straight tail wavered with the smallest of wags.
The spear shook in Corvin’s hands. Was it the weight, or rage summoned by the coming battle, or, more likely, ball-shrinking fear?
The sentries formed a semi-circle, cutting off all chances of escape, and advanced, slowly, their spears leveled. Their faces and the slow pace of their advance brought Corvin comfort. He wasn’t the only one who was afraid.
“Steady,” called out the Captain — his rank made obvious by the addition of stripes on his tunic and the sword, rather than a spear, in his hand. “Keep them penned in, and make ready for a charge.”
The sentries closed a few more steps and Orsle roared and swiped a claw through the air.
“She’s about to bolt,” the Captain said. “Ready…”
A loud cawing sounded, followed by the flapping of heavy wings and a light thud.
“Stop your charge, Captain Jellen. These women are indeed my Sisters, and are under my protection.”
The sentries raised their spears and backed up a few steps, but they didn’t break formation.
“How did you find me?” Avei asked. “How did you know?”
Orsle pulled the bear head back from her face and became a woman. “The crows gave strange signs, and all the Sisters spread out to look and listen. They sent Tae and I to find you.”
“And who is this?” Avei asked, regarding Corvin.
Her neck was long and narrow, and her movements had a graceful, but jerky quality. She had dark eyes and a pointy, but elegant nose. She wore a lovely green gown, but the cloak of black feathers draped over her shoulders demanded more of Corvin’s attention. The sharp black crow’s beak was nearly invisible in her ebony hair.
“Someone we picked up on the road,” Tae said.
“He can drop the spear if he wants to,” Avei said. “It looks too heavy for him anyway.”
Corvin dropped the spear onto the dirt and jumped at the noise it made. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry, dear,” Avei said. “I appreciate anyone who tries to defend my Sisters.”
Corvin smiled, but couldn’t figure out what to do with his hands, so he fiddled with the hem of his woolen tunic.
“My Lady,” the Captain said, sheathing his sword and approaching. “We must inform the Baron of these…recent events. And,” he pointed to the fallen soldier, who was still alive but stuck in his dented helmet, “attend to Larmer.”
“You have my leave to see to Larmer, but leave the Baron to me.”
“But, my Lady — ”
“I don’t recall asking for your opinion on the matter. You are dismissed for now.”
The Captain sent his sentries back to their posts, leaving two at the keep door rather than one, and dragged Larmer off himself.
Avei opened the door. “Please, follow me.”
Upstairs, in Avei’s sitting room, deep within her and the Baron’s private apartments, they sat around a table near a row of narrow windows. Avei offered them cold beef, soft cheese, hot bread, and sweet red apples. Corvin ate two whole apples and had his first taste of wine, while Orsle and Tae made short work of the beef.
Once the niceties and the catching up had passed, Avei said, “I’m not leaving. I love him.”
“But, you see where that leaves the Sisters?” Tae asked. “There will be trouble.”
“There’s always another to take my place,” Avei said.
“Only in the event of your death,” Tae said. She couldn’t help but bare one fang.
Avei puffed out her feathers. She fixed Tae with a glare. “Is that a threat?”
Tae sat up straight and fanned her face with her hand. “Oh, I’d never threaten such a well-mannered lady.”
Avei’s hands curled into talons.
“Enough!” Orsle growled. “We were tasked with finding you and bringing you back.” She looked at Tae. “Not with your punishment.”
“I can’t live in the wild anymore. I’ve made myself a nest here and I plan to stay and mind it. I renounce my place amongst the Sisters.”
“But you can’t,” Tae said. “Nobody has ever…” Her word faded into a pleading whine.
“Avei,” Orsle said. “I understand. There are men who’ve captured my heart, men who I bore daughter-cubs, but men who could never keep me. It’s not our way.”
“I’m tired of our ways. I want to watch my…hatchlings grow. To mother them, and to have grandchildren. To stay in one place with one man.”
“You can’t!” Tae said.
“Yes,” Avei said, taking hold of the beak nestled in her hair, “I can.” She peeled the feathered cloak away. Her face tightened with pain, and Orsle and Tae turned away, unable to bear witness to such mutilation. Corvin, however, watched, raptly, an idea and a need growing within him.
“Send the word out,” Avei said. “Find one of my daughters to come and take this.” She dropped the cloak on the floor, but picked it up so quickly — like a baby that’d fallen from her arms — and cradled it against her chest.
“I’ll take it,” Corvin said. He held out his hands.
All three women screamed at the same time. “No!”
“But why?” Corvin asked.
“You are no woman,” Tae said.
“Close enough,” Corvin said. “I’m willing to travel the land, taking husbands, and doing the work of the Sisters.”
His eyes met Avei’s for a moment. She saw his willingness, but her eyes were tinged with doubt. The feathered cloak yearned for her, the quills of its feathers questing for her skin, but she held it at arm’s length.
“It’s not our way, Corvin,” Orsle said. “I wish you could be one of us. I’ve grown fond of you. But, there’s no way the cloak, and thereby the Sisters, could accept you.”
“We’ll see.” Corvin stripped off his shirt and made to leap over the table toward Avei where she stood near the window. Tae beat him to the tabletop, but he’d anticipated her move and dove under the table instead. He rolled and stood on the other side, wrenching the feathered cloak from Avei’s grasp. Orsle roared and Corvin heard the table splinter behind him. Tae caught his heel, but was sent yipping and rolling away by Avei. She already looked more human, but older, as if age had caught up with her. Corvin hoped that her new husband would still find her beautiful.
Corvin did the only thing he could think of doing. He flipped the feathered cloak up over his head and dove out the window. He hurtled toward the hard-packed dirt upon which he’d stood a short time ago, defending two beast women he wished were his sisters. Two women that he’d just betrayed.
Sharp pain lanced along Corvin’s back, as if he’d lain on a bed of nails. He spread his arms and curled his toes, willing himself to be a crow, willing himself to live, to be a part of something he’d never dreamed of.
Feathers took root in Corvin’s skin and his legs and feet grew so thin that both his pants and his shoes fell off. The lower half of his face pinched together and pushed outward into a shiny black beak.
At the last possible moment, Corvin spread his wings and wheeled upward in a wide circle, circumnavigating the rough stone wall of the castle several times as he climbed.
A distant song called to him. A chorus of hundreds of animal calls, rising up around the deeper call of the Mother. Before he could answer its call, he circled back to the window and landed.
Orsle, Tae, and Avei stood, wrapped in a tight embrace, tears streaming down their faces.
“I’m sorry,” Corvin said. “But, it seems to have worked.”
The Sisters, both former and remaining, turned to him.
“Welcome,” Orsle said, smiling. “I never would have thought it possible.”
Tae said, “It’s an abomination.”
Avei said simply, “Thank you.”
“The Sisters are calling me. Mother is calling me.” Corvin twitched his head and cawed. “Before I go, I need to say…thank you.”
Tae wouldn’t look at him, but Orsle and Avei returned his thanks.
Corvin took to the sky, following the song. But along the way, he searched the world below. He had no idea what would happen to the Sisters, now that there was a Brother. Would he have to close his eyes and lie with a woman, to make sure the line of Crow continued? Such thoughts confused and disgusted him, but he was soon distracted because he found what he was looking for.
Far below, fishing alone on the bank of a narrow river, he saw the perfect boy. Corvin circled ever downward, landed near him and pulled the beak up away from his face. His cloak fell away to reveal his lithe body.
The boy dropped his pole and gaped. His blonde curls shone in the bright sunlight, and his chin was narrow and delicate.
Corvin stalked toward him. “Let’s make each other men.”
The perfect boy smiled.
|Dale Carothers lives in Minnesota with his wife, Sara, and an emotionally demanding beagle. He provides independent living skills training for adults with disabilities and eats way more cake than he should. Find links to his work and leave a comment at dalecarothers.wordpress.com|