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Birds of a Feather

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Obey the Master! a raven would caw in his dreams, Obey, obey!

When he was awake, it was a whisper that followed wherever he went; the flutter of wings at the edge of his hearing, a one-eyed raven glimpsed and when Krabat blinked, it had vanished on silent wings just like his dreams.

“Don’t ask too many questions, Krabat,” Tonda still chided him sometimes, though less so these days. It felt to Krabat like there were so many dark secrets he had learned already that there could nary be any left to discover – or if there were, they must be so dark indeed that he would not even wish to know.

Tonda was always there, a steadying hand on his shoulder, a friendly voice and kind eyes amidst the endless toil of their days at the black mill. Tonda, the friend who made his worst days bearable and brightened his best, the one who had painted the mark of the Brotherhood on his forehead and took wing with him by night.

Ravens they were, twelve miller journeymen and the dark master who commanded them, the one who taught them the grinding of grain and the rest as well and he knew, Krabat simply knew that he had found his rightful place with them. The food was good and if the men were not always kind, there was still Tonda, his faithful friend.

For as long as their Black School stood there would always be Tonda, Krabat knew.

Even on new moon nights, when the Dead Stones were grinding away at human teeth and bones the starkest white, there would always be Tonda to remind him that he had to forget.

Even when nights of magic left him feeling so brittle and worn that his own bones might as well be snapping under the millstones already, there would always be Tonda, his friendship as much promise as the soft flutter of raven feathers.

There was normalcy in this life of milling by day and studying the Art of Arts by night, normalcy in learning to master the turning of grain into flour as much as learning to bring down hail or lightning or make wells run dry. Soon, normalcy even in grinding white bones to white dust and the Master’s whip on the nights of the new moon, when the Goodman came.

The food was still plenty, his cot free of lice and the miller’s men were, if not friends all of them, at least companions as good as you might find anywhere in the Kosel fen.

You just had to remember to forget.

It was easier to forget once summer came and the work lightened.

“Even the Master seems to be in a good mood these days,” Krabat remarked while they were working the fields by the mill one day. He looked over his shoulder, satisfied to find Lyshko nowhere in sight, and dropped his tools to stretch his arms high above his head before he dropped down onto the rich, dark earth.

“He always does, in summer,” Tonda said, a solemn undertone to his voice though his mood too had been lightened by getting out of the mill.

Between dawn and dusk, the hard work might have been easier on them than on ordinary men but it was still tedious work. Krabat didn’t mind it so much, every time he noticed his magic at work he still felt a shadow of the thrill he had known at Easter, when he first lifted a bag of flour as if it weighed nothing and pulled the wagon laden with bags as if he had a horse’s strength.

He lifted his hands towards the sky, pretending to catch a cloud in his fist and wondering whimsically if one day, he would be able to do so for real, or at least command the clouds as easily as seeking shade in the shadow of a tree. He turned toward Tonda, who had joined him on the ground. “Do you think the Master will teach us another weather spell this week? I’d like to command the clouds.”

Tonda chuckled. “You will. If you stay long enough.”

“I don’t know why I wouldn’t,” Krabat told him, laughing as well. He crossed his arms under his head. “I don’t think I ever want to leave here again, or at least not until I have learned everything there is to learn from the Master.”

Tonda just hummed to acknowledge his words.

He had never thought of his life after the mill, Krabat realized as he laid there and tried to find familiar shapes in the fluffy white clouds. He ached to be up there and fly amongst them but it would be many hours yet until their workday was done. Longer even if he kept being lazy, yet the thought wasn’t enough to get him to move.

“I could have a mill of my own. And teach magic to others,” Krabat decided, though that struck him as a very far-away dream indeed. He had barely started his studies and the Master’s other journeymen were all older than him, some of them easily twice his age and yet they still served.

Again, Tonda said nothing, he looked as far away in his thoughts as that night at Baumel’s End.

Krabat, undeterred, continued. “I never thanked you properly for helping me these first months until Easter. I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

Finally, Tonda seemed to be pulled out of his thoughts. He shrugged, a hint of a sheepish smile on his lips. “Think nothing of it. It’s just, we shouldn’t make life harder for another if we don’t have to. It’s hard enough here.”

It had been, back when he had to do a wizard’s work without any of the magic that lightened the burden for his fellows.

“Any of them could have helped me. But you were the only one who did.”

Tonda looked at him, solemn, and placed a hand on Krabat’s shoulder as he had in these early months when he would revive his tired body. “Don’t let the mill or the Master make you forget who you are, Krabat. Don’t ever forget. We have powers other people don’t but we are still people.”

Krabat sat up, for this promise felt far too solemn to be given in a lazy sprawl. He met his friend’s eyes. “I won’t. I promise I won’t ever forget.”

He wouldn’t, Krabat told himself as they returned to work, this promise he would remember not to forget.

Neither Tonda nor Krabat noticed the one-eyed mouse scurrying away, satisfied with its vigilant watch.