The Fledgling

I entered the dream walking from the wilderness to the fire before my lair. I was looking forward to getting some sleep and wanted my mind to be as comfortable as my sleeping body in my room. I was met at the fire by Snake, who had been on his own adventures and was resting near the warmth. He coils around me in that snug comforting grip and we laze there for a while. In Snake’s coils, I fell into a deeper sleep.

I feel a great heat surrounding me. My flesh is melting. I open my eyes to see I’m on fire. I sit up to find I’m on a pile of burning bodies. Even though I am engulfed in flames, I feel no pain. I lay back down until I fully understand I am on fucking fire!

I jump off the burning pile. The flames quit my body at once. I take stock of the damage. Most of my right hand is gone, as is my right eye. My skin is peeling off most of my body and my face is split and bleeding. I hear cawing but it feels like it is far in the distance. I don’t notice my ears have been sealed by the heat.

A clawed hand grips my charred face and sharply turns it upward. Ravenwoman is glaring at me fiercely. She is chattering at me in the language of crows but I don’t understand. When it is obvious I have no idea what she is saying, she rolls her eyes dramatically, looks up, and sighs in that exasperated “What am I going to do with you?” way.

She grips the back of my head with her other hand and forces me into a kiss. My breath leaves me at once but she is not content to just incapacitate me. She holds the kiss until all life and warmth and free thought leaves me. She kills me, leaving my body dangling as she continues to hold my head in her taloned hands.

I have just enough awareness to monitor what she is doing with my dead body. She shifts her grip to get a better hold and throws my body back onto the fire. The fire takes to me at once but I don’t care anymore. I have no emotional engagement. Ravenwoman chuckles a bit, then throws her head back and cries out sharply. The sound chases the last bit of awareness from her realm.

I wake with a start. Snake is still coiled around me but there is something strange about him that I can’t describe. I note I am inside my lair now, laying on my low pallet. Without words Snake tells me he brought me inside because it was clear I had set forth into a deeper dream.

I start to thank him but I start trembling instead. Snake shifts his coils, tucking my arms in, and holds me gently as the fit begins. I hear the flapping of feathered wings but before I could ask, my awareness sinks from the cave.

The fire still burns but my flesh is not yet gone. I am quite dead and immobile. My awareness dulls into silent indifferent observation. While i have no means of marking time, it feels like hours pass as the fire slowly devours all flesh and blood from my body. All that remains of me are charred and desiccated bones. But for some reason, the fire is not consuming my bones.

Ravenwoman is humming to herself as she gathers my bones from the fire. She cracks open the long bones and ribs, pouring out the ash that was the marrow. She kisses my skull in satisfaction, noting there is not even the stain of brain matter inside the empty space. The fire did its job very well.

She has the feather cloak draped over her arm. Chattering in a low drone, she wraps my bones tightly in the cloak. At first the bones clatter against each other, but as she wraps tighter and tighter they fall into a forced position. I feel my awareness changing. I don’t remember the creature that was killed and burned. I get a sudden urge to be free of her grip, to fly.

I am tossed upward as she cries a great shout. At once I extend my ebony wings and flap furiously to gain altitude. “Wait! Come back here! I haven’t given you your task yet!” I hear Ravenwoman clearly and circle above her in confusion.

“Come here, you silly bird! You’d think I made you a chicken! So impatient!” I circle once more than land on her left shoulder. I caw at her teasingly. She looks me over in smug satisfaction. She gives me a message to deliver for her. “He knows you, no matter what shape you are in. Tell him what I spoke, then return to me at once!”

I caw one last then take off from her shoulder. I don’t question why I am suddenly able to travel between worlds so smoothly. Or why I am now a raven. Or why I can understand her. I am a fledgling of Ravenwoman’s murder, and that’s enough for now.

I reach the one she spoke of with ease. He is not surprised to see me and chuckles as well. He and his guest both listen to Ravenwoman’s message. As soon as it was delivered, I forgot the content. It was not meant for me, after all.

My task completed, I left to return to Ravenwoman. But a surging thought distracted me. A human lay in distress. I had to check on her.

At the thought I was instantly in her room. Perching on her bed’s headboard, I saw her body stiffly shaking. I cawed at her, but she did not respond. Her mouth was set in a teeth baring grimace and her hands were clenched tightly.

I cawed loudly, calling for help, but none came. I cawed again but lost my voice and balance and tipped forward. I felt my body shift around me just before I hit the forest floor face first.

A steamy snort above me called my attention. I looked up into a dark horse’s muzzle. It had no eyes and was so thin I could count every bone. I lifted my arm to shield me and saw I was humanoid, naked, and feathered from head to toe with unnaturally long flight feathers on my arms and hands.

The rider of the horse was helmeted, armored, and carried a spear that bore the marks of many battles. “You are not one of my ravens.” His voice was gravel deep and deliberate. “And you are not yet ready to ride with me. Be off! Go back to your clutch!”

He raises his spear menacingly, but I am not afraid. I should know who this is but at that moment I don’t know much of anything. Was I raven, or human, or something else? I feel something gripping me, pulling me out of the rider’s path.

Snake bows to the rider, saying that I was still in Ravenwoman’s grip. He asks mercy for me. But there is still something different about Snake.

The rider lowers his spear. “She is not ready.” Once Snake has pulled me completely clear, the rider continues on his path. Only now do I see the pack of wolves and spirits behind him. My eyes widen at the recognition of the Wild Hunt.

Suddenly terrified, I cling to Snake. He picks me up with ease and I note I am like a small child to him. As he carries me away, I fall into another fit.

I open my eyes to see Ravenwoman is carrying me. I am like a small child in her arm. She is chattering in the language of crows to no one in particular.

“This one is not ready. He still clings to the things he left behind. Oh she’s ready for the fire! Nothing left of her! What a cute little skull. Children decay so fast, they never stay long.” She looks down at me. “And some children never grow up. Or do they?”

She sets me down. When my feet touch the ground I age from the five year old she was carrying to a sixteen year old girl. I note I am wearing the same brown tunic and skirt as Ravenwoman. We are both barefoot. And we both wear feather cloaks.

She hands me some dried bones. “Look for others like this.” Unquestioningly, I comply. She leads a meandering path through the boneyard, pointing out examples of what to take and what to leave behind rotting. Both of us soon have arms filled with dry human bones. She leads me to an open space and we make a new bone pyre.

“Don’t just stand there, girl! Light the fire!” She verbally snaps at me, leaning in to make sure I hear her. I look between her and the assembled bones, full of doubt. She rolls her eyes dramatically again. “You carry the fire. You ARE the fire! Go, Devourer! Go devour the bones!” She shoves me towards the cold stack of bones.

I reach out with my right hand, noting the burn scar that completely covers it. I realize my right eye is similarly marked. With the realization came remembrance of other things. I touched the top bones, caressed them slightly, feeling how hollow and light they were. There was only the faintest feel of human life on them. It was time to cut the last thread.

The devouring fire welled up from deep within me, pouring out of my hand like Greek fire. This time, the fire did not consume me, or my clothes. But the bonefire was lit and the last vestiges of these people were burning away.

As I stood back, Ravenwoman stepped forward. “Well, what do you know. You can be taught!” She laughed the harshness of crows and danced a little jig. I stood and watched her, knowing the dance meant more than elation. When I didn’t join in, she stopped and glared at me.

Instead if shrinking back in fear, I admitted I didn’t know what to do next. She leaned in, cocking her head from side to side studying me. “No, you don’t. Of course not, you don’t remember. At least you’re finally admitting it.”

She taught me about the dance, the Shaking of the Bones. She taught me about the song that goes with it, the Crying of the Dead. Or rather, she helped me remember. It felt that nothing she was telling me was new, it was all things I had forgotten. The dance and the song weren’t necessary, as I had seen when I burned the jersey. But they had their moments, and this was one of them.

Together, Ravenwoman and I danced and sung to the freshly dead, the long dead, and the departing dead. The boneyard echoed our shrieks and rattled from our steps.

That work done, she noted I would be returning to the world of the living soon. Now that I could understand her, did I have questions? I asked a few, about myself and a few others connected to me.

“You already know that answer, why do you keep asking the question? Do you think if you ask it enough times, the answer will change?”

Yea, that stung. I admitted I did not trust the answer because it was too neat, too tidy, and could easily come from my longing to be a part of something greater than me.

“Consider this, Weaver. You’re not the only one saddled with a name. Tell me, what is her’s again?” As I thought of the answer I realized the import of it. I didn’t speak it, only nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fly off, girl. You have other things to attend to.” At her command, I did change shape to a raven, and left the Boneyard behind. I opened my eyes to see I was still in my dream lair, wrapped in my feather cloak, with a seven headed Snake coiled around me in mutual comfort. Two of his heads were resting on his plushie, two more were resting on my chest. One turned towards me and flicked my nose with a wet forked tongue.

I listened for the sound of flapping wings. Hearing none and exhausted from the events, I slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Make of that, what you may.

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