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The Boy and The Raven

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There was once upon a time when a boy lived alone in a wood possessed by magic. In his humble mill by the river he trapped luck in bottles, wove love by a thread, and had tea with the kindred animals that stopped to say hello on his doorstep. The animals were kind to him. They spoke only of kind things, even about the village outside the wood that the boy knew was not so kind. The village was filled with hateful Man, and Man could only be cruel and deceiving.

“But they are not so bad once you get to know them, Jake,” chittered the birds, who liked to spy over the people for sport.

But the boy knew better. His grandmother had nursed him to sleep with terrible tales of Man and how he destroyed the life of the wood and each other. Her dying breath was a plea for him to never leave the wood, for here he’d always be safe, and always be loved. The boy never dared disobey her then.

But loneliness was a tempting demon. Often he caught himself tipping back a bottle here or there, transforming into all sorts of feathered and fanged beasts to glimpse at Man committing his evils. Their strange ways frightened him, and he found no desire to venture further.

On a rainy day at the cusp of autumn, a thief wandered into the magical wood. Though drenched cold to the bone, it did not soften his stone sharp features or aggressive stature. He was young and handsome, but most of all cunning, and deviously clever. Upon his person were merely the clothes on his back and a lantern to guide his way.

The wood was haunting and unwelcoming to his presence. The light of the lantern could not stretch much farther than the furthest reach of his fingertips. Shadows of trees hid dark secrets, and the yellow-eyed glow of the animals hanging on their branches protected them. He was not afraid of their menacing glare. The thief pressed onward, searching for food, or someone to take it from if he had to.

After traveling at great length, he happened upon the boy’s mill. The house that leaned snug against the large spinning wheel was quaint and charming, with stone walls climbing with ivory, carved mahogany doors, and stout chimney sprouting from the top. From the house wafted a delicious, warm smell that reminded the thief of freshly baked bread. His stomach grumbled and his mouth watered, and he followed the scent towards the beckoning mill. 

Upon the windowsill was a large plate of pound cake. It was hot and coated with thick, creamy sugar that melted with the heat of the bread. The starved thief snatched it from its place and was ready to make off with it, but stumbled upon a branch that seemed to reach out and seize his ankle from the ground.

The lantern shattered in a shower of fire and glass. However the cake was saved, caught by the boy that loomed angrily over the trespassing thief.

The boy had never seen a person so close before. When he looked down on the man, he masked his curiosity and trepidation with the thunder of his raging voice. “What are you doing here human, disturbing my forest and stealing my dinner?”

The thief looked to the boy and knew he had made a grave mistake. There was power in the small frame that stood over him. His eyes were a clear green, and when the boy stared back he could not bare to hold his gaze for long. The thief suppressed his fear and raised his head proudly towards the boy.

“I am very sorry for trying to take your cake, but I am famished,” said the thief. “If you could spare me a piece, I will trade it for labor or anything else you desire.”

Jake narrowed his eyes. He did not trust the man. “What is your name, thief?”

“Dirk. I have nothing else to my name but what you see before you.”

Jake considered the thief. He thought of his grandmother’s words, her warnings, but he considered the birds and his own curiosity, and his overwhelming loneliness that tempted him to give in.

“…All right. You may come inside, and help yourself to food and drink.”

A table of clean, porcelain plates and napkins was set. Jake set down a bowl of apples, chicken broth, and bread with a block of cheese, and Dirk’s eyes hungered. The centerpiece of the table was a lit candle glowing inside a pumpkin no bigger than the palm of his hand.

The thief was smart and did not utter a word about Jake’s bizarre home. A cauldron sat in the middle of the den, empty as far as he could tell. Wreaths of garlic and onions hung from the ceiling, ginger roots and tomatoes scattered over the kitchen counter, and something boiled over the pot on the stove that smelled of pine and granite. Carvings of archaic mystery were etched into the walls that he did not understand, and jars full of strange brown liquids and foreign objects floated in the corner. Dirk refused to look in that direction.

They had a merry time together. He ate his fill and drank wine, and had a laugh with the boy who was growing more and more intrigued with him. Dirk spun a tall tale of mystery and adventure, of the life he dared to live to be free. He admitted that it involved a bit of ‘borrowing,’ but he assured Jake that he always repaid the people that he borrowed from. To the boy, the thief was a treasure box full of stories and things that he never dared to dream of. He easily fell for the thief’s words. Drunk off the wine and tales, the boy agreed to the thief’s request to stay the night. Repayment would be arranged in the morning. For now they would rest, as visions of strange colorful worlds and new people clouded his dreams.

In the dead of night, a single soul stirred from its slumber. Dirk’s sly amber eyes watched his steps as he tiptoed through the house. He examined the cabinets of vials that pulsed in the dark; pinks and blues labeled with odd curling words. He had no interest in taking potions, but had his eye on the emerald amulets hanging from the door, and the silver chalices that he could possibly trade for better shoes or a warmer coat.

A rapid patter of feet skittered across the floor behind Dirk. He whipped his head around to see but it was too dark. A large owl hoo’d from a wooden beam above, and he could see its large, yellow eyes staring angrily down at him as its feathers ruffled and its beak snapped open and closed. He pulled his rusted, brittle old dagger from his side and pointed it at the owl, then at the darkness that threatened him with its creaking, menacing groans.

The flame of a candle emerged from the darkness. The boy’s sleepy silhouette appeared holding the candle in his nightgown, his eyes heavy and confused as the light cast over Dirk. When he saw the knife and amulets in his hands, Jake glowered.

“Thief!”

The air trembled with his outrage. The wind howled, the floorboards shivered, and the ghoulish coos of animals erupted into whispers of fury and accusation. Thief, thief they hissed! Dirk backed himself against the door and went cold as he heard it lock.

“I have made a terrible mistake trusting a human,” Jake scowled, his candle illuminating the reckless way he rummaged through his drawers, “but you have also made a terrible mistake betraying my trust.” He removed a leather pouch and a gold coin from the drawer and faced the thief. Inside the pouch was a soft gray powder that slipped like ash from the palm of his hand when he poured it out. “…And you have given me your name.”

Dirk’s excuses were ignored. Jake clenched the ash in his fist, and it transformed into thick blood that oozed down his arm. His emerald eyes burned with rage.

“You will pay for your greed.”

Invisible hands seized his throat and clenched. The thief’s eyes bulged, and he scratched and tugged at his throat uselessly. His organs collapsed upon themselves in his body as they shrank, and bones cracked and crumbled as they shifted and transformed. His skin bubbled and grew feathers, his blood boiled and frothed and bled black. He screamed in agony until his voice was a crow and his mouth was a long black beak.

The thief shuddered upon the floor. The boy tossed the gold coin beside him and turned away. “May your greed be satisfied.”

 


 

Dawn was cold and wet. Grass squished under his boots as Jake picked weeds from the meadow. The water from the creek flowed easily after the heavy rain as tadpoles followed the stream to their mothers. Jake snatched a toad from its perch on a stone.

“What devil worship will you perform with that?” sneered the raven behind him.

Jake chuckled. “How about lunch?”

The raven scoffed. Dirk may have been tired and full of hate, but he was still hungry, and would eat the food given to him. He hopped close to keep an eye on the boy.

As a bird Jake was no longer afraid of him. He was no different from the rest of the beasts that lived in the wood, and as such, it was Jake’s duty to take care of him.

“You must eat and gain your strength back. You have beautiful wings– you should use them.”

“I have no use for wings. If I am to break this curse you put upon me I will stay here.” Dirk’s talons clawed marks into the mud. “I will haunt you until you lift it.”

“That’s all well and good, but I don’t think you will be finding the solution anywhere here.” Jake took his broom and swept the falling autumn leaves from his porch. “If you want to lift your curse, you’ll have to renounce your ways as a thief.”

But Dirk did not know how to do this. He was a raven, and how could a raven be a thief? He hopped alongside Jake and followed him back into the house, deliberately leading a trail of mud inside.

For many days and many nights, the raven did not speak a word to the boy that didn’t involve a curse or distasteful comment. He mostly sulked by the window in the kitchen, occasionally ruffling his feathers or cawing with boredom. He always came when supper was ready though, and Jake always gave him a fair portion. Many other animals would come and inquire about the strange raven that ate by himself on the windowsill, but Jake only said that he was sad, and needed to be left alone.

Of course the children were terrified of him. If he didn’t look so melancholy sitting all alone up there Jake knew they would warm up to him, and Dirk might even come around to stay and chat after supper. Possibly. Dirk certainly didn’t appreciate being lectured on the matter.

“The other animals would gladly welcome you if you approached them!” Jake stirred his bubbling purple mixture, his face framed by a cloud of fumes that emanated from the boiling cauldron. He inhaled the smoke and a pink flush washed over his cheeks. “They are kind creatures, every single one.”

Dirk only tapped his beak on the glass, being a general nuisance. He peeked over at Jake who was tossing ground up herbs into the pot. “…What are you doing?”

“A treatment for Mrs. Hopwood-” Jake sneezed into his arm, “the rabbit missus that lives in the burrow nearby. She’s been having some problems with fertility. This should remedy that.”

“You can do that?”

“Why- yes!” Glad to speak of his work he babbled about the things he could do with a simple potion, from re-growing an entire organ to fixing a simple balding problem. He used a ladle to sort his mixture into different vials and pocketed one. “That should do the trick. Would you like to deliver this with me?”

Dirk turned back to the window and Jake sighed. “Right then, I’ll be back in a pinch. Sit tight.” He doused the fire beneath the cauldron then donned his cloak and left.

Dirk did not spare a moment.

It was evening by the time Jake returned. The wood was humming with the snores and sighs of the sleeping, as it should. The light of his lantern cast shadows on the silent house as he stepped through the threshold. He called out Dirk’s name, but no answer came.

A crash of broken glass echoed from the other side of the house. Jake ran to it and found his potion cabinet broken open with many vials shattered and spilling over the floor. The wood was warping where the liquid touched the ground.

“Dirk!” he called out to the darkness, carefully stepping over the glass shards.

A small thud came from the bedroom. Jake rushed in with his lamp and nearly stumbled on the raven at his feet, its feathers soaked in glowing pink and purple liquid. Smoke rose from the body and a trail of dissolved feathers and blood littered the floorboards.

Jake set the lamp down and scooped Dirk’s body in his hands. Candles hanging on the walls lit themselves as he entered the kitchen and carefully placed the bird on the worktable. The boy did not ask questions, and diligently cleaned and catered to the raven’s wounds throughout the night. Every spell and all harm was undone.

Jake was not available for morning tea with the animals the next day. He slept soundly in his bed, watched over by the raven whose burns were already healed and feathers nearly grown back. Dirk crowed quietly, curiously. Jake was not even cross with him when he first woke. He was not kicked to the streets, or threatened; merely put to rest, and told to watch his bandages while he slept.

The raven wondered how such a powerful, lonely thing had any room for selflessness in his body.

Early at noon Jake awoke to an empty room. He found Dirk sleeping on the windowsill tucked into his wing and holding his bandaged claw at an odd angle. While he slept Jake baked an apple pie. As it cooked and swelled in the oven Dirk fluttered down to the counter to watch.

“You used your wings!” Jake gladly exclaimed.

“I thought it was high time.” He hopped onto Jake’s offered finger then climbed up to perch himself on the boy’s shoulder.

Dirk asked why Jake was not upset with him. He said there were times and places to be angry, and that was the end of that.

“I won’t be growing any third limbs will I?”

“Who knows?” Jake grinned, who absolutely knew.

The pie was shared among the both of them. Jake saved several pieces for the evening and several more for his friends. When the moon rose into the sky once more Jake expected Dirk to return to his spot by the window, but was surprised when the raven did not leave his shoulder. Jake set a spot on the rocking chair for Dirk and insisted he rest there.

He kept awake until the bird closed his eyes and slept. Many minutes passed before he let his eyes slip shut as well.

It took time, but soon Dirk grew accustomed to the other animals, which were always outside or in Jake’s house to say hello. Jake was delighted when he finally agreed to an errand run, and possibly over-briefed him.

“Oh, but trust me, you’ll love them, you really will. The Foxes are such a kind family, and the children are delightful. You haven’t seen much of them because they tend to find shelter when it gets colder, but that’s why we’re going to visit as well, since we won’t be seeing them much at all during winter.”

He held a basket in his hands, swinging it slightly as Dirk watched from his shoulder. The leaves crunched under his boots and the trees grew thicker as they traveled further from the mill.

The Foxes lived, as did many of the other animals, in the hollowed out trunk of a tree. They poked their heads out when Jake approached them and greeted a hearty hello. Jake waved back, and sat just in front of the tree as he put the basket carefully aside.

Exactly five came out of the hollow. Four were children, and they chased their white tales in circles around Jake as he laughed. Dirk fluffed his wings and remained quiet. But that did not stop the kids from noticing him.

“Who’s that? Who’s that?” they asked, one even crawling up Jake’s back to get to him. Dirk flew into the air, and circled back down when everything had settled again.

“A new friend. Be kind to him, he tends to get grumpy quite easily.”

“And whose fault do you think that is?”

They all laughed at this, to Dirk’s utter surprise, and it eased his nerves somewhat as he watched Jake begin his work.

“Now, who is the one that’s getting those wretched nightmares?”

The excitement of the party simmered down, and a small, bashful fox stepped forward. Dirk pitied the thing.

“It’s all right, little one.” Jake took the fox into his hands as if it were a cat, and stroked it lightly behind the ears. “Maybe we can solve this without magic. Want to try?”

The little fox looked worriedly to his mother, then back to Jake, and nodded.

Jake smiled. “When I was small, I’d get nightmares too. How terrible they were! I thought I’d never escape them.” He set the fox down. “They were very scary, and made me very sad. Does that sound familiar to you?”

He nodded frantically. Jake went on. “I was rather alone and without a wonderful mother like yours, so I had to learn to help myself. I’d wake up, rub my eyes, and see that I was in my room, and that all was silent, and all was well. Everything was okay, and so was I. Do you see what I’m saying?”

The little fox looked unsure. Jake hummed, then turned to Dirk at his side. “How about you? Have anything to add on the matter?”

“No.” Dirk shook his head. “No, absolutely not.”

All the kids whined in sync. Jake shrugged with the smuggest grin and gestured towards them broadly. Dirk sighed.

“All right. I as well have had nightmares.”

They all gasped as if that was the most impossible thing he could have uttered. Dirk looked to Jake for help but received none.

“…But my nightmares were not something you could wake and shake yourself from. I would open my eyes and they’d be real. I’d have no food, or place to stay for the winter. A true fear, a true nightmare, is something that follows you in your waking dreams. I had those.”

All the Foxes huddled around him and paid the utmost attention. It raised his chin a bit, so he went on. “The best way to rid myself of them was to solve the problems presented in the nightmares. If I dreamed of having no food, I would find it the next morning. If I dreamed of freezing to death I would…find warmer clothes and a place to stay. I’d say all you have to do is solve the problems in your nightmares. What do you dream of?”

The fox shyly spoke. “I dream of the winter taking my family away.”

Dirk agreed. “That is very scary.”

Jake listened quietly with the barest hint of a grin on his lips.

“So what you should do is help your family prepare for winter. Make sure they’re all well fed, and they’re all accounted for. Help your mother keep your siblings safe. Then I’m sure your nightmares will stop.”

The fox nodded his head vigorously and happily looked from Jake to his family. As the children said their farewells and went back into their hollow, their mother thanked Dirk profusely. Jake handed her a small green bottle.

“Just in case my dear.”

She nodded, took the bottle into her mouth, and joined her children. Jake stood and left the tree.

“You did quite well,” he grinned, “more so than you think.”

“I don’t know. Nightmares aren’t so easy as that to solve.”

“I know.”

If Dirk had an eyebrow he would have raised it. Jake walked on, a basket in hand and a bird perched precariously on his shoulder.

Incense filled the house with the scent of lavender. Jake would spend hours in the meadow surrounding the house searching for plants to burn, but there was little to harvest. Burning wilted flowers was bad luck he’d said. In spring, he had incense burning constantly, and it saturated the air with pleasant feelings. Dirk did not know if he liked the smoke or the smells following the tail ends of his feathers like spirits tangled in his wings. It did things to him. He’d find himself laughing a little louder, or squawking more excitedly, as burdening thoughts flowed unwillingly out of his body like leaves down a stream. The lavender was especially effective, and as Jake sat in the rocking chair sewing a pair of trousers, Dirk chewed on a cinnamon stick by the pillow of Jake’s bed.

“Why are you making trousers?” asked the bird.

Jake snipped the string with his teeth and held the pants at eye level. He sighed dejectedly. “Oh bother, they were supposed to be for when you…changed back eventually.” Dirk looked at him. “But I can’t get the stitching right. They look disastrous!”

“I have perfectly fine clothes, wherever they are. You don’t need to make me new ones.”

Jake bit his lip. “As a matter of fact, they’re not fine. I incinerated them the moment I got the chance.”

Dirk dropped the stick from his beak. “What? Why did you do that? They were my only set of clothes!”

“I’m aware of that–”

“Those clothes were the only things I owned, and you destroyed them. Why would you do that Jake? Do you have no respect for other people’s property?”

Outraged, Jake jumped to his feet. “Well that’s a haughty thing for a thief to say. Tell me when was the last time you respected someone else’s property!”

And Dirk quieted, turning his back to the boy as he picked up the stick and tossed it around with his feet. Jake sighed, and sat down heavily.

“…Your clothes were ravaged. They wouldn’t last you through the winter. I thought that you’d benefit from them, or maybe even feel…” Jake paused, rubbing the side of his arm. “That aside, I’m very sorry for upsetting you.”

Dirk slowly turned around and shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t apologize.”

As Jake leaned back into the rocking chair, Dirk fluttered onto the armrest beside him. He watched him pick up the needle and thread again, and clumsily stitch through the patch at the back. As he went, stitches sewn incorrectly seemed to fix themselves.

But Dirk kept his beak shut, and chirped quietly. “They look good. I’m sure they’ll keep me warm.” He dropped the cinnamon stick onto Jake’s lap, and the smile on his face when he picked it up glowed.

“You’re welcome!”

Jake’s finger reached out to him, and Dirk only flinched a little when it scratched his head. His feathers ruffled, but he calmed, and soon joined Jake in silence as he sewed.

The incense did things to him. Sometimes, it didn’t relax him a bit. But maybe that was just Dirk.

 

Wind and sun felt good on his black feathers. He enjoyed flying beyond the canopy of trees to feel the autumn sun on his back. It was getting cooler every day, but he no longer had to worry about food or shelter. Occasionally he’d ask the boy what it meant to not be a thief anymore, for he hadn’t stolen a single coin since his curse. But Jake liked to answer only in strange riddles that Dirk did not want to understand.

On days when the rain did not fall so heavily and the sun shone through the clouds, Jake would go hunting on the outskirts of the forest. There was a barrier just beyond his magical reach that his grandmother placed when he was very small. Outside the barrier lived ordinary Man and ordinary creatures. He hunted the dumb animals while the birds kept watch in the sky for Man.

They ran through the forest, stealthy but fast, with arrows in Jake’s right hand and a bow in his left. Dirk circled his head from above.

“You will be my eyes now, raven. My sight is not so good when it comes to distances.”

He slowed to a stop, and Dirk flew down to settle on Jake’s shoulder. “Can you not use magic to fix your eyes?”

“Oh, no, I cannot perform magic like that directly on myself– so I enchanted these goggles to see distances a bit better. But they have this dastardly effect of making my ears itch, so I will refrain from using them for now.”

Today they were here to reseal the barrier that prevented his magic from releasing beyond the forest (and add a few touches to prevent more intruders). From his satchel Jake retrieved something that looked like a thurible to Dirk, but was shaped in a perfect golden sphere. He only had to blow into the sphere for smoke to rise from it. As he walked a perimeter invisible to Dirk, chanting words in a strange language, the raven chased the plumes rising to the sky that smelled like wine and burning coal. The surrounding air warped like summer heat.

A steady foot cracked a twig nearby. Dirk turned to the sound and saw the blurred outline of a boar lumbering along slowly and without a care. He crowed to Jake, who looked from him to the boar.

“Excellent eye my friend. A clean, painless shot should do the trick.” Jake carefully laid down the thurible and raised his bow into place. Dirk sat on his shoulder.

“I am no friend of yours,” said the raven with a smirk in his voice. As Jake stretched back his arrow and chuckled, there was another rustle from the trees nearby. Quickly they ducked behind a large boulder and watched as two young men emerged from the shadows. With their eyes barely peeking over the top as Jake kneeled, they observed together, silently.

The men were stalking the boar but carried no visible weapons; only two large sacks that were heavily weighted on their backs. Muffled laughter came from them both. They stalked the boar until it bothered to notice them, and right as it turned its large head, the two pulled out stones from their sacks and launched them at the boar’s face. It squealed, stumbled back, and made a barreling chase. One of the men laughed as he ran, continuing to throw stones behind his back, and just as the boar was about to catch him the other man tossed a stone as big as his head. The boar changed targets. Fattened with food for the winter, it was unable to catch up in time, and ran back and forth to each stupid man as they pummeled it with stones till blood dribbled over its black eyes.

Dirk was angry, but he had seen such cruelty before. It was a game for immature children who were never taught by their mothers to respect their food. He was ready to tell Jake to leave, but saw that the boy had tears streaming down his face. His bow was at the ready and his trembling arm was aimed towards the men.

The first shot missed, zipping right over the thinner one’s head. Dirk sprang into the air as Jake readied the second arrow, this one’s tip burning with green fire. He crowed and screeched but could not get his words out. Jake’s head pounded with his raging inferno, and he could no longer hear Dirk, or his own grinding teeth, or the way the boar squealed in pain. The raven flew to the men with all the power in his small body and just made it. Jake’s arrow struck true.

The men saw the fading green light and fled, as did the boar. The tip of the arrow had pierced the flesh of Dirk’s shoulder, as feathers molted away to skin and wings turned to arms. His shoulder absorbed the fire and it pulsed through his veins like shocks of lightning. He ripped the arrow out with his hands, and immediately collapsed to the ground.

All of Jake’s rage evaporated. The boy stumbled to Dirk, dropping his weapons and sinking to his knees. Dirk was clutching his bleeding shoulder, which blistered and seethed where the arrow had struck. The blond hair of his head no longer looked like hair but gold colored feathers, thick and bright and beautifully strange.

Jake hurriedly wiped his eyes. “W-what on earth were you thinking? I hurt you, and, oh dear, it’s going to be such a mess undoing this curse, I’ve poisoned it with hatred and, you’re bleeding so much, and oh merciful heavens you imbecile!

Dirk laughed weakly and used Jake as support to stand. It took him a few tries to get the words out. “You were going to kill them, weren’t you?”

The boy could not reply with more than a few flabbergasted noises of outrage and excuses, but Dirk shook his head.

“You are many things, Jake. But a killer is not one of them.”

The sounds of the wood followed them home. With his arm around Jake’s shoulder they began the long walk back to the mill as the sun dipped behind the horizon.

 

 

Critters and creatures of all sorts crowded around Jake’s bed. Their beady eyes were wide with wonder, for a human, a Man, was sleeping in the sheets of the boy’s very own cot. They could hardly believe that the raven they had come to know was not whom they thought he’d been. Jake hunched over his form, stitching together the torn skin with an enchanted string. It glowed red and bright, and molded with Dirk’s flesh as it made contact.

“He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?” asked the squirrel, climbing on top of his chest to sniff at his nose. One of Dirk’s amber eyes slipped open to smirk at him and the squirrel scurried off the bed as quick as he could.

“He’ll be fine. There’ll be a nasty scar, since he thought ripping out the arrow was a brilliant idea,” Jake glared at him, “but he’ll be fine.”

It was very late, and Jake still had plenty of work to do, so he dismissed his friends and went about finishing up his stitching. The quiet of the room made him tense and his hand unsteady. Dirk opened his eyes.

“…Tomorrow we can find the boar together. I’m sure he’s dealing with a terrible headache just about now.”

Jake did not find this joke very funny. His brows furrowed and Dirk sighed.

“Sorry. I seem to be burdening you quite a bit since my arrival.” Dirk hissed as the needle roughly pierced his skin. “With my shenanigans and all that.”

“I just don’t understand why you had to go about hurting yourself to protect them.” A wrinkle had formed between his brow; Dirk found it rather endearing. “Evil, disgusting creatures.” He was a bit forceful with the needle, and Dirk outright flinched away. He muttered a half-hearted apology under his breath.

Dirk grunted. “I was not protecting them. Would you not have regretted killing those people?”

“…Maybe.” Jake wiped away the blood around the stitching. He grew sheepish. “Nonetheless, it was a very selfless thing to do. I appreciate it.”

They were silent. Rain dripped, pattered against the window, then poured. Jake’s furrowed brow softened.

The ache in his shoulder was no longer so prominent. Dirk stared at the ceiling, feeling Jake’s concentration burn into his wound. He breathed out a sigh through his nose.

“…You’re afraid of me.”

Jake paused. “Why do you think so?”

They muttered under their breaths; Dirk’s reply was barely a whisper. “Because I am a man.”

“No…I am not afraid.”

“You haven’t looked at me since I changed.”

“That’s preposterous.”

Dirk placed his hand over Jake’s, which shook with the needle. The boy looked at him and felt his stomach twist upon seeing the stoic face of the thief looking back. His eyes softened.

“Will you treat me differently now that I am no longer a bird?”

Jake looked away. “No.”

“You are lying.”

“No!”

“Then look at me proper.”

He could not. He could not look into the man’s eyes without feeling that familiar lurch of fear and terrible loneliness. The hand over his was so much bigger and so much warmer. He thought that, if Dirk wanted, he could easily crush his smaller fingers. But as he tried to pull away, Dirk squeezed his hand gently and brought it over his lips.

“I may only be a thief in your eyes, but know that to me, you are not just a boy. You’re a friend.”

Jake carefully retracted his hand and went to work again, focusing solely on Dirk’s shoulder and nothing else.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

  

He found the thief sitting on a boulder by the creek, skipping stones as his bare feet soaked in the water. Jake took a deep breath and approached him.

“You forgot this inside,” he said, handing Dirk the healing crystal from behind. “That arrow carried a powerful spell– you must wear this or you’ll get sick.”

The crystal chinked against the buttons of Dirk’s shirt as he slipped it around his neck. He turned to Jake and nodded. “Thanks.”

Jake smiled and quietly joined him beside the water. They spoke about the falling leaves, and about the cold. The winter would come soon, they’d have to stock up on food. Extra quilts could be sewn. Yes, the clothes fit him perfectly. A question was on the tip of Jake’s tongue, but he couldn’t get around to it. He opened his mouth but resigned the thought.

“…You’ll catch a cold if you keep your feet in that freezing water,” mumbled the boy. Dirk shrugged. “And I don’t have any healing crystals for that.”

“I don’t get sick.” Jake squinted. Dirk leaned back on his hands. “It’s true. For my type, if you get sick you don’t get better. So you don’t get sick.”

Jake did not understand, so he looked to the creek, and at the water trickling through the rocks and into the brown grass. A bird flew overhead that caught Dirk’s attention. He sighed.

“You know, I very much enjoyed flying.”

Jake brought his arms around his chest. It was getting chilly. Dirk asked if he’d like to go inside, but when he shook his head, he continued.

“I felt the freest I’ve ever felt in the sky. I could go anywhere and see anything I wanted. But I couldn’t leave, obviously, since I thought staying here was the only way to break the curse. And I was right in a way.” He laughed a little, and turned to look at the boy. Jake looked back shyly. “I know you want to ask me something, and I have a feeling I know what it is.”

Rather than hold Dirk’s gaze, Jake stared down at his finger that was currently digging out a bit of grit stuck in the rock. Dirk leaned closer.

“You are wondering why I have not left yet.”

Jake flinched. When he pulled his eyes up to peek at Dirk again, he was not sad, or angry; rather, it was some expression entirely new that confused Jake immensely. “N-No, that’s not really…I mean, that’s not exactly what I…”

“Go on then.”

He heaved sigh of frustration. How was it that he could so easily converse with the animals, but not to this person that he had also easily spoke ith as a bird? He did not want to prove Dirk right, in that things had changed between them. But maybe they have.

“I…I was just wondering how it is that you can stay here. If I were to leave the mill, I mean, I simply couldn’t! There’s so much that I’d be leaving behind. I have the animals to take care of you see, and the wood to watch over, and…”

Jake took a steady breath. Dirk listened patiently.

“Isn’t…isn’t there anyone waiting for you to come home?”

Dirk placed a large hand on his shoulder, patted him, and let it rest beside Jake’s against the rock. The lazy breeze ruffled his feathered hair.

“I’ll let you in on a secret, sorcerer.” He stared unfocused out at the wood. “The life of a thief is a selfish one. I realized this when I was very young; an attachment to others means a split of the winnings. It’s no fault of anyone’s, really. I must travel to survive, take only what I need, and leave before anyone can remember my name.”

“But…I remember your name?” murmured Jake, so feebly that it made Dirk chuckle.

“I think it’s fair to say that you are different than others.” Dirk stood from the rock and stretched, placing his hands on his hips and looking about the surrounding wood. Jake carefully stood along with him. When Dirk turned to meet Jake’s eyes again it was clear he had decided upon something.

“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to stay for the winter. It’s too late to find shelter elsewhere before the ground freezes. I’ll help with chores and such, I swear,” he said, raising his hand when Jake narrowed his eyes, “and I’ll be gone before the first bloom of spring.”

Jake was not sure. He never had a human stay in his home. Oh, what would his poor grandmother think of him, considering such an unknown? And yet preparing for winter was hard work, and he still had so much to do before the animals went into hibernation. He remembered months of long, dismally dark nights, watching the snowfall by the dying hearth. Cold and loneliness went so well together.

“All right. Yes, you can stay. But on one condition.”

Dirk faced him straight on; the assertion of the stance made Jake’s confidence waver. But he continued, and did not betray any of his doubt.

“If…if ever I feel threatened by you, I will turn you right back into a bird. And you will not change back so easily as you did before.”

Dirk thought for a moment, then nodded. He offered his hand to Jake and shook it firmly. “Deal.”

And without delay, they went to work.

While meat was hung to dry in the meat locker out back, Jake chopped wood until the sun went down and his hands were red with blisters. Dirk could not use his shoulder quite yet, so Jake had him sew when he admitted he could make lovely quilts. Though Jake always had extra food left over in the past he did not want to take any risks with his new guest there. When he was not chopping wood he was hunting for food and making sure all his animal friends were fat and happy before they hibernated for the season.

“I could always steal food from that village nearby,” said Dirk, already halfway done sewing a large purple quilt with black and blue diamonds. He’d never seen such beautiful colors, and was ecstatic when Jake had handed him the threads.

“No. Have you learned nothing? We will work to support ourselves.”

“I know, I know. I was only joking.”

There was no pause in his stitching as Dirk spoke. The fluidity of his fingers was almost mesmerizing. Jake sat beside him just to observe, and asked with astonishment where he learned to sew so well.

“There were happier times, when I was a lad. I worked as a tailor’s apprentice in his shop, and when the master was not there to take orders I would fill them out myself. Without pay of course.” Dirk glanced at him. “Would you like to learn?”

“I can sew!” said Jake indignantly. “With some…magical assistance.”

He snickered. “Here, I’ll show you.”

But Jake shook his head, and quietly revealed his blistered, reddened hands. “Some other time, perhaps.”

“You’d better treat that before your hands seize up, or you will be about as useful as I am.”

“No,” he sighed. “Healing remedies are such a bother to make.”

Again, Dirk snorted, and it made Jake feel as if he had missed something. The man set down his threads and took Jake’s hands in his. The boy stiffened.

“See, all you need is cold water. No alcohol since they don’t seem to have opened yet.” As Dirk inspected his hands, bending back fingers and stretching his palms, Jake winced, and bit back his complaints. Dirk looked up at him. “Are you all right?”

He nodded, met Dirk’s piercing eyes, and shook his head. “No. It hurts.”

So Dirk set about soaking his hands in cool water from the creek, and wrapping them in cloth just tight enough that his digits couldn’t move. He had Jake rest for the remainder of the evening as he sewed, and served ale for them both while rain drizzled outside.

By morning his hands were stiff but more or less blister free. He worked until his axe stained with his blood, and Dirk punished him by keeping him inside the following day with bandaged hands and a prescription for relaxation. He’d never done nothing before. And it felt odd being told what to do; chastised but simultaneously cared for. There was still so much to do, but Dirk was right. If he kept pushing himself he wouldn’t be able to finish everything.

But as Jake poked his head out from his room, unable to sit still if even for a moment, he’d closely observe the stranger kneeling in front of the fire while he stitched and stitched. Worry would sink in his belly, and he would clutch it tight and pray for the feeling to leave. The stranger sitting in his chair was not a stranger at all; it was Dirk, the raven, the bird whom he’d come to know so well he’d dare to say he was his close friend.

 

Jake lied in his bed. He stared at the carvings on his ceiling as he listened to Dirk salt the meats in the kitchen. They had found the boar the other day, and Jake’s heart had broken when he saw how much pain it suffered through. Though Jake put it out of its misery, they did not eat the boar.

He’d yanked out his arrow from the beast’s chest. Dirk stood beside him, worriedly looking him over.

“Should we bury it?”

Jake shook his head. “Nature will take care of the rest. As it should.”

He recognized the hesitation in Dirk’s eyes, and the reluctance to leave such good meat behind to rot, but followed obediently behind as they made their way back to the mill.

They hadn’t discussed much else about the incident. Dirk could see Jake’s mood darken whenever he mentioned it, so he let it pass, and they carried on as if it never happened.

A raven fluttered down onto a branch outside the window. Jake’s heart skipped a beat before Dirk entered the room, a tray of steaming tea in his hands. He watched him pour out the cups, and Jake thanked him as he sat up to sip his share. The warmth of the cup felt good on his sore hands.

“…It’ll be cold tonight,” said Jake as Dirk went around the room to blow out all but one of the candles. “I feel a snowstorm approaching. Extra blankets are in my cupboard if you’d like.”

“You know, I wouldn’t mind you changing me back into a bird for the winter nights coming. It would make things easier.”

“Changing back, you say. As if it were your first form!” He glanced over at the raven outside. It had gone. The dimmed lights of the room were lulling him to sleep. He closed his eyes. “…Tell me a story, thief.”

Dirk sat down in the rocking chair beside the bed. He let the vapor of the tea fill his lungs. “How about you call me Dirk and I’ll spin a nice yarn for you.”

Jake grinned. “All right.”

Dirk took a breath, and began.

He told Jake one of his favorite stories, about an evil, adventurous pirate that ruled the Caribbean islands. Jake loved to listen about the ocean and the strange distant places, about the treasure, and the beautiful women. He interrupted the story so many times the candle was nearly a puddle by the time the tale had ended. All the tea had been drunk, and their sleepy eyelids would blink slow and lazy to stay awake. Jake had a grin so wide he lit the room with it.

“Dirk…”

He opened his eyes and glanced over at Jake, whose dreamy eyes were brimming with wonder. Something in his chest twisted.

“Mhm?”

“Those stories you told me, when you first came here. They weren’t real, were they?”

Dirk sighed. “No.”

Jake looked down, disappointed. “I thought so.”

They let the wind outside speak for them. When Jake spoke next, his voice was barely a whisper, and heavy with sleep.

“Dirk…”

“Yes, Jake.”

His eyes were shut. “Will you tell me more stories tomorrow?”

Dirk looked at the boy. He seemed to already be sleeping; his dark lashes did not flutter, and his breath whistled out gently from his lips. Dirk quietly stood from the chair and pulled the covers over Jake’s shoulders.

“Sure.”

Before he left the room, he blew out the last candle, and the house was cast into darkness.

 

Dirk never really saw the animals, though he assumed that was because winter was around the corner. But when Jake went on his errand runs to see them, and he offered to go too, Jake would glance away nervously and say that it was best if he went alone.

He knew exactly why; asking wasn’t necessary. Dirk would approach the creatures sniffing around the house, and they would bolt away from him as quick as they could. And when he’d head back inside and approach Jake about it, he never missed the way Jake’s shoulders tensed and his lips thinned. The only animals that ever bothered with him were the birds, but they only sang their songs and played in the trees.

Dirk fiddled with the healing crystal still dangling from his neck. Its unnatural glow had long since faded. Jake found him sitting alone in the den and joined him by the fireplace.

“I’m surprised you’re still wearing that thing, since I had to chase you down to wear it at first.” He laughed a bit, and when met with silence, he cleared his throat and played with the cuffs on his wrists. Dirk looked Jake over for a moment before looking back at his crystal.

“I wonder how the foxes are doing,” he asked casually.

“They’re doing fine!” Jake piped up.

“Then why can’t I see them?”

He seemed to choke mid thought, and stuttered over his words. Dirk answered for him.

“I know. It’s because they’re afraid of me.” Dirk dropped the crystal and met Jake’s eyes. “And so are you.”

“That’s not true!” But Jake was weak under the intensity of his gaze, and gave easily. “Well, I-I mean, not completely, I’m getting used to you, a-and there’s the fact that I’ve never had a human stay in my house before, and…and you’re…” Jake looked up at him, his words slowly dying. “You’re so, um…”

“What?” Dirk moved closer, and Jake’s brows knitted together as he leaned back.

“Intense.”

Dirk paused. He noticed how close he was to Jake, and saw the way he was awkwardly bent back to avoid touching him. Dirk leaned away, then stood, and left the den. Taken aback Jake hurried to follow after him, armed with apologies, and found Dirk in the kitchen pulling on his travelling coat.

“C’mon,” he said, gesturing to the door. “Let’s go see the foxes.”

It took him a moment to understand, but then Jake nodded enthusiastically and followed Dirk out the door with his coat still in his hands.

At the brink of winter, the air was biting and the skies were gray, but the trees still stood tall and magnificent without their beautiful golden leaves. Jake led the way and carried no goods or treats, but kept an eye on Dirk behind him who stayed close by.

“Will they recognize me?” Dirk asked.

Jake picked up his nervous waver and smiled to himself. “If you speak to them, yes.”

The hollow tree appeared the same as they had seen it before, but was filled with hoarded acorns and berries. Jake held up a hand for Dirk to stay back, and cautiously approached the tree with slow testing steps.

“Mrs. Fox? Hello there, it’s me. Jake.”

Several moments of silence passed before a sleepy red headed fox emerged from the dark hollow. Her nose immediately caught the scent in the air, and when her eyes found Dirk she darted back into her home. Jake stopped him before he could chase after her.

“Now wait Mrs. Fox, see it’s not what you think! This is, er, oh dear…come here, Dirk. Slowly.”

Dirk carefully stepped towards the tree, and kneeled beside Jake as slowly as possible. He stared into the dark, unmoving hollow, and cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry for disturbing your sleep. But I just wanted to say hello. And not as a bird, but as a man.”

Dirk and Jake glanced warily at each other when no response came. They waited patiently. The hollow did not stir. As Jake was readying to let them alone and leave, taking Dirk by the arm, a little one emerged from his home. He blinked his black eyes sluggishly, glancing between the two.

“Dirk?” it said, and Dirk bit his lip to contain his excitement.

“Yes, it’s me.”

“The raven? But I thought…you were a bird?”

Dirk wanted to get closer, but Jake put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He took a breath.

“Yes, I was a raven thanks to Jake here, but I’m really a man. I’m the same on the inside, promise, just not a bird anymore.”

The fox hesitantly stepped closer. From the hollow several more heads emerged, including a wary mother that Jake quickly explained himself to. She had her eyes trained on the man and her child as Dirk reached out his hand, and the little fox raised its nose to sniff his fingers.

“How are your nightmares?” he asked, and the fox’s eyes widened. It seemed in that moment he realized Dirk really was the raven, and the fox jumped onto him and climbed up his body as if he were a tree. Dirk chuckled uncomfortably and tried to grab him, but the fox was too fast and too excited.

“You smell the same, you smell the same!” And all the foxes came to Dirk and sniffed his knees and hands, and the mother approached him as well, and she seemed to recognize him and Dirk smiled. He smiled broadly, happily, crawling with baby foxes that licked him everywhere. The other animals nearby noticed and watched, and Jake knew that soon they would all get used to him just as well.

They said their goodbyes. Mrs. Fox said she was glad to see them both, and Dirk agreed. He thanked her, and with Jake they departed from the tree with lighter steps.

“You’re awfully quiet,” said Dirk.

Jake had been staring off to the side, daydreaming. “Oh! Yes, I’m glad that the foxes accept you. I knew they would.”

Dirk snorted. “Did you now?”

“Yes, I did!”

“You sure?”

Jake groaned. “Yes!”

“Then how about you?”

He shrank a bit, and gently kicked a pile of leaves aside. “Um, yes.”

“That was the weakest yes I have ever heard.”

“Well, it’s true. And you can believe it or not, and whether or not you do is not my problem!”

Jake stuck out his chin and stomped forward, but his haughty disposition broke down almost instantly when Dirk began to laugh at him. He soon reluctantly joined in, and their laughter resonated in the empty woods as they made their way home. Unknown to them both, the crystal around Dirk’s neck began to flicker with light, just for a moment.


 

 

Days passed like odd, hazed dreams. The past and the future no longer mattered. He’d be sitting drinking tea with Jake, and that moment would be so vivid in his mind, but he could not recall what he’d been doing the previous day. Jake’s smile, the shyness in his sideways glances; he remembered those. He remembered the quilt when he finished it, and the spell Jake cast so that its stitches would never tear. Though time visibly passed and the sky blanched white with snow, Dirk could not remember how much had actually gone by. Often he blamed the crystal dangling around his neck. Although Jake had said he no longer needed to wear it, he didn’t have the heart to take it off. It was the first gift he’d ever been given. Jake may not have viewed it in the same way, but to Dirk, it meant something.

Nights were long, days were short, and both were blistering cold. A fire was always blazing in the fireplace, and incense burned that kept their cheeks warm. He slept in the room where Jake’s grandmother once resided, and Jake looked at him with sadness whenever he mentioned it. Dirk remembered his downcast eyes.

“She flooded the wood with magic. It protects me from harm.”

“She sounds like a powerful woman.”

Jake smiled. “Yes, she was.” He set down his book. “She once told me, long ago, that when I was small I had eaten a raven’s egg. It was at that moment that I could talk to the animals. Intelligent creatures, ravens are.” Jake winked at Dirk, and he pulled his gaze away. “But they could only understand me, and not her! Peculiar, it was.”

Dirk had frowned very deeply. “I do not understand. If that is true, then how is it that I can understand them?”

Jake had paused, and his eyes widened a fraction. “I don’t know!” He thought very long on this. “Then again, it wasn’t long before she was speaking to them as well.” And he returned to his book, untroubled by this as much as if Dirk were to tell him the snow was falling or the creek had frozen over.

The air was saturated with magic. He felt it seeping into his skin, and whenever Jake spoke or moved near him, he felt it in his bones. It possessed him like the animals and the trees, and on nights when the cold was too much to bear he’d wake with magic shaken from his dreams like snow in his hair. Truthfully, it scared Dirk, but he did not want to trouble Jake. He was too kind for his own good.

Dirk stirred stew in a pot alone. He stared at the broth mindlessly, as Jake came up to him from the side.

“…You didn’t light the fire,” he said as he lit a match and tossed it underneath the pot. Dirk backed away from the stove with a frown. The mixture had already been boiling.

“Right. Sorry.”

Jake stared up at him. “Dirk? Are you okay?”

He rubbed his tired eyes. “Yes. Why?”

“Well you’ve got bruises under your eyes.”

Out of the corner of his sight, Dirk saw Jake’s hand hesitantly reach towards his face. He snatched it out of the air before it touched him.

Time stood cold, just for a moment. He stared at the creases in Jake’s hand, the callouses, his chipped nail. It wasn’t until Jake whimpered that he realized what he was doing. Dirk carefully released his wrist, feeling the magic fade from his fingertips.

“Sorry, Jake.” He leaned against the counter, pushing his fingers through his feathered hair. “I haven’t been getting much sleep lately.”

Jake’s voice strained when he spoke. “I have something for that.”

He meant to follow Jake as he turned away, but couldn’t bring himself to it. His gaze lingered– he caught himself. Dirk sighed through his nose and returned to his stew.

At night when the wind was calm and the house was quiet, Dirk reemerged from his room. Jake was crushing almonds in the kitchen. He quietly approached, and cleared his throat to get Jake’s attention.

“What are you doing?” he asked when Jake didn’t turn to greet him.

“I was hoping to make something so that I wouldn’t waste my materials.” He was upset, obviously; Jake glared at the almonds that he seemed to be grinding with all his might to dust. Dirk reached out to touch his shoulder, but stopped himself.

Staring at the back of the boy, he asked himself if being possessed by magic was such a travesty. There were worse things; like being cold, and being hungry. Dirk pursed his lips and let his hand rest on Jake’s arm. As Jake turned to look at him with surprise and a hint of fear, Dirk tried to ignore that strange pull on his hand. He held his gaze with Jake, as the fear in his round emerald eyes was replaced entirely with confusion.

“Dirk?”

Dirk stared at him and said nothing. Jake’s eyes shifted away. He took a breath but stopped himself from speaking.

“What? What is it, Jake. Please tell me.”

“I…I was just wondering what was wrong. You’re being intense. Again.”

Dirk blinked, and let his hand slide from his arm. He felt the crystal jump against his chest. “No, I’m sorry. I acted out of line.”

Jake scrutinized him closely. He slipped away from Dirk and went to his potion’s cupboard, where he quickly scanned the shelves and picked out a vial.

“Here, maybe you should take this tonight.”

Dirk joined him but kept his distance. He traced Jake’s features with his wandering eyes. “Will this help me sleep?”

“Um, yes. I think this will be better than my other mixture,” he laughed nervously, “which was just going to be almonds and milk. But you will most likely hallucinate.”

“What? No. Absolutely not.”

Jake waved his hands. “Oh no! What I mean to say is, you’ll dream. But they’ll be very vivid dreams. They might help you with stress.”

Dirk raised an eyebrow. “Still a no.”

Though he was apprehensive, it was amusing to watch Jake try and explain himself. The enthusiastic way he was ‘selling’ his product lifted Dirk’s spirits.

“No, it will help! I assure you it works wonders. It’s as if your mind lays out all your problems for you and a nice path for which to follow and fix them, and…”

He sighed, frustrated by his own inability to speak to the other. “You’re still my responsibility, even if you’re no longer a bird.”

“But I can take care of myself.”

He did not know what to say to that. Jake faltered and visibly deflated. “But…I, er. Um…”

Dirk shook his head as the corner of his lips lifted. He took the vial from his defeated hands.

“I will drink this, but only for you.” He lifted Jake’s downturned chin with the tip of his finger and smiled gently, before popping out the cork and tipping it all back in one go.

It tasted like powdered sugar; the moment the liquid touched his tongue it dissolved from his mouth altogether. Immediately he felt heavier, and he clutched his head as the familiar pressure of exhaustion weighed on his body.

“What…what do I do…”

“Head on to bed, now.”

Jake wordlessly followed him to bed as Dirk slipped under the covers. He could no longer keep his eyes open without them leaking from his exhaustion. Dirk fidgeted with the crystal.

“I don’t like this, Jake, I don’t like this at all.”

“You’ll be fine, I promise.” Jake sat by his bedside. Dirk’s heart pounded, and sweat gathered on his forehead; Jake gnawed on his lip before taking Dirk’s hand in his. Its warmth anchored the worry constricting his chest. “You’ll be fine, Dirk, just let it work. Don’t fight it.”

And so Dirk did as he was told, and let the medicine take him. He fell asleep instantly. Jake squeezed his hand once, and returned to his own room where he slept a dreamless sleep.

 

Dawn found Jake shoveling snow from the porch. He worked tirelessly, wiping sweat from his brow. The birds chirped at him from the trees and he smiled. He hoped his friends were doing all right. Dirk appeared from the doorway dressed in his robes. The birds tweeted hello to him, and he nodded his hello back. He didn’t say a word, and watched Jake until he turned and jumped from surprise.

“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” He set down his shovel, and joined Dirk on the doorstep as he leaned heavily against the wall, only a little out of breath. “Did you sleep well?”

Dirk refrained from answering as Jake examined his features. There were no bags under his eyes, but he seemed stern. More than anything Jake wanted to ask about his dreams. Without the courage to speak he rocked back and forth on his feet. Dirk breathed out a laugh from his nose.

“What are you doing?”

He stopped immediately. “I don’t know!”

Dirk chuckled, and it made Jake smile.

“See! It worked, I knew it would.”

“What worked?”

Jake stomped his foot. “You know exactly what!”

And Dirk laughed, and laughed, and though Jake could not see it, there was nothing mirthful about his laughter. The potion had done its job. His heart was heavy and his mind was set, but he’d chosen a path. He looked at Jake’s gleeful face and grinned.

“Let’s get back inside before you catch a cold.”

And Jake obediently went in, feeling confident in himself and his magic. Dirk squeezed his crystal necklace once, and followed after him.

That night, Dirk decided to tell him a special story; a story about a bird that was very lonely and very lost. The bird did not quite feel free in his home, where people treated him very kindly all days. He only wanted to fly, and feel the wind in his feathers and the sun on his back. But the people were so kind, and he was so confused. He had no real reason to want to leave. So he was given a choice; he could stay, and be happy but the same all his days; or he could leave, and never return to the people that he’d then betray. The bird did not know what to do, so he became very sad, and in the end, could not make a decision with his broken heart. Eventually the bird faded into dust and the people despaired his loss.

Jake was asleep halfway through the story. Dirk did not mind. He closed his eyes, and like in his dream, saw the paths laid before him. He never left the rocking chair, and slept restlessly throughout the night.

 

“I have something for you,” Dirk said, breaking the silence.

Jake looked up from the book he was reading, the orange glow of the fire flickering over his face. “Really?”

Dirk nodded, and he swiftly left to retrieve a box from his room. When he returned, he handed the box to Jake, whose face was alight with excitement.

“Whatever is this for?” he said, untying the strings holding it together. Dirk pulled the chair closer to watch.

“It’s to celebrate Christmas. I don’t really know how much time has gone by, but I’m sure it’s passed by now. On the day Christ was born, people exchange gifts and sing songs. It’s a merry time.”

“Who was born?”

Dirk shook his head dismissively. Jake opened the box, and his jaw dropped as he pulled out a long green scarf.

“Ohhhhh!”

It was hand knitted and embroidered entirely by Dirk. The deep emerald matched his eyes and dark skin. Jake stood to see that it was longer than him when held up from head to toe. When he noticed the embroidering on the ends he gasped; there was a raven with an arrow next to it, and though it was simple, the way Jake traced his thumb over it might as well have turned it to gold. The grin on his face was bright enough to last Dirk a lifetime.

“Dirk, it’s so beautiful…” He held it against his face. “I swear it’s softer than a newborn’s fur, and it’ll be warmer than a fur coat, too.”

He tried to wrap it around his neck, but Dirk tsked and stood to fix it. He tied the scarf in a knot and tucked it under the front of his coat.

“There. You look like a true gentleman.”

His hands lingered on Jake’s chest. Jake looked up at him, smiling more broadly than he’d ever seen, and wrapped his arms around Dirk’s chest.

“Thank you.”

Dirk’s arms hovered awkwardly at his sides. He did not know what to do or say. For many long moments, they stayed silent, as his heart ached and his words failed him. He breathed out a heavy sigh, and hugged Jake tightly. His chin was just tall enough to brush over Jake’s black hair.

He mumbled something that Jake didn’t catch. But as Jake pulled back a bit to ask, he could not speak upon seeing Dirk’s stricken face. He bravely reached up to cup Dirk’s cheeks between his hands. His worried eyes asked the question for him.

Dirk never spoke. He rested his forehead upon Jake’s and pulled him closer. Jake could feel his breath against his nose.

He spoke up softly. “…Dirk?”

It was so warm. Dirk traced his nose down Jake’s cheek and kissed his lips.

He stumbled back, but not far; Dirk had him too tightly enclosed in the circle of his arms. He stared and stared, touching his fingers to his mouth.

Dirk pursed his lips. He seemed so conflicted. “Will you turn me into a raven?”

Jake slowly lowered his hand. He shook his head. “N…No, I don’t think so.”

“Then kiss me.”

A bated sigh escaped his nose. His nerves fluttered, and his cheeks burned, but he held Dirk’s face in his hands. Jake closed his eyes and kissed Dirk’s soft lips.

Though his heart felt ready to burst from his chest, Jake felt oddly at peace. Dirk was so gentle, and slow, that the press of his lips could almost have been called timid. He held Jake firmly around the waist as the other’s arms loosely wrapped around his shoulders, squeezing, tighter and tighter. Jake shifted his footing, and then he could feel everything, from the tension in Dirk’s back to the heat radiating from his skin. He made a small noise. The subtle sound had Dirk pulling back.

They looked at each other, and Jake knew something had changed. Dirk snuffed the worry growing in his eyes before it sparked and leaned forward to kiss him again.

 

The snow had melted. Grass could be seen again, and though it was golden, it was there, and that meant the return of all the animals. The trees hadn’t any leaves and the air was cool, but the sun was out, and water was flowing in the creek again. It was beautiful. Spring was right before them.

The house was still. In the kitchen, a coat hanging over a chair waited. Boots sat on the mat by the foyer. Embers in the ashes of the fireplace silently seethed, and on the dining table a long burnt out candle was left cold in its waxy puddle. In the bedroom, one boy slept deeply. He was curled on his side, and did not feel the shivers of the morning chill.

Dirk slowly detached himself from Jake’s back. As he sat up, the covers slid down his waist. He could see spring creeping in from the window. The branches dripped with water, and a bird settled to tweet her morning hello.

He gazed down at Jake, whose soft features, long lashes, and dark, dark hair hurt him deeply. He bent down to place a lasting kiss on his cheek, and slipped out of the bed.

The crystal dangled against his bare chest as he dressed himself. Dirk quietly made his way to the kitchen and pulled on his coat and boots. He did not take any food.

The wood was drowsy in its morning serenity. He inhaled a deep breath of the chilling fresh air, and looked up at the house, and over to the mill.

His feet hesitated on the porch step. He wanted to stay. The house was calling him back inside, with promises of happiness, and a bed that’d always be warm. But he turned his head away and shut the door. Once his feet started to move they did not stop. Dirk followed the winding path out of the wood, leaving the mill, and Jake, behind.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The sharp cold of the early morning was what woke him the next day. The space beside his was empty, and though his dewy eyes understood that he was alone, he was not concerned, and slipped into his clothes and began his day as usual. Breakfast was made; hot bread, cheese and grapes were placed on the table, and the ashes of the hearth were cleaned out. He had water boiled from the river and fresh jam that he’d made all on his own without a drop of magic. It was a very handsome set, and when he sat down he was very excited to begin.

But Dirk did not appear. Jake frowned, and when Dirk did not answer when he called, he worried his lip. Abandoning his table he looked around the house. He looked outside, and searched the mill and the surrounding meadow. The food was cold by the time he had given up and conceded to return to his table. Soon the stars came out, but he never saw Dirk. Jake retreated back to his empty room, where he had no choice but to rest and hope for Dirk to reappear tomorrow.

He never did. Jake waited for days, searching the wood, frantic and confused. His friends helped look from the creek to the barrier and every crevice and cranny they could in between, but his scent had vanished.

He did not understand. It was as though Dirk had disappeared from the earth altogether. Was he lost somewhere? Could he have hurt himself? Jake did not have the heart to search the river or the dangerous cluster of slippery rocks at the edge of his barrier. He called off his friends’ search, and went on looking alone. Jake became so worried that by the time the sun had set each day he would be running through the forest looking for Dirk. Every evening he would sit outside his doorstep and wait, without fail, until the wood was so dark he could no longer see the path, and the fire inside had smoldered to nothing but ash and cinders.

 

Spring was in full bloom. Flowers filled the meadow, and the trees were so thick with green and lush only the sun’s most brilliant rays could shine through the branches. Jake could feel the power that it brought him, but it did not flood his heart like it used to. The magic no longer simmered and hummed under his skin. When he dragged his feet across the barren dirt of the forest, the earth would turn black and fleck with dust. It frightened him. He’d sit in front of the fireplace, obsessively repeating memories over in his mind, as the flames flickered a lifeless dance in his eyes.

Maybe Dirk did not want to be found. He could see the hesitation in Dirk’s touches in his memories, but they were quickly followed by their intensity, willingness, and devotion. Dirk had taught him so much, most of all how much of his life he had spent without. How he had once been so alone and so happy he would never know. Now, as he looked out upon the dark, silent wood, he felt hesitation, and an undeniable fear at the unknown that lay beyond.

He would find Dirk. Jake believed in the feelings that still thrummed in his blood. He would use them to his advantage.

Jake took out his spell book, and placed his cauldron into the fireplace. Ancient magic was dangerous, but he believed, absolutely, in Dirk’s feelings for him. He would not give up.

 

 

“Where are you?”

“He’s been muttering that every night for weeks now,” whispered the Badger. “Do you think he’ll ever find him?”

“Where are you?”

“I do hope so, the poor boy has been sick in the head ever since the Man left.” The Owl settled himself on the bedpost.

“Where are you?”

Mrs. Fox and her grown children gathered around Jake’s stiff body. He did not stir, except for his eyes, which flickered this way and that as if searching each soul in heaven for what he had lost. She laid her head on his stomach to monitor his breathing. “His heart is quick. Should we wake him?”

“No,” spoke the Owl, “whatever he has taken has absolute control over his body. Who knows what might happen if we disturb his trance.”

As the humble animals solemnly watched the boy, Jake’s dreams stretched thin, threading from his mind and out of the forest, through the dreams of the birds and the butterflies and all matters of creatures in between. The threads unraveled as Jake did; every night his thoughts untwined further, a pile of tangled yarn and vapor where colors and memory had been. He stretched beyond into the land of Man and brushed their dreams as well. The thread sifted through whatever it could reach, tirelessly. Though Jake had never slept so much in his life, he had never been more exhausted. It was his hope that kept him going. He believed in Dirk, and followed the hope his body and mind now relied upon entirely.

 

 

The thief slept deeply. Quietly he drifted, still and dreamless, as his blistered hands and strained muscles healed. He’d worked since dawn in the fields, plowing the rocky soil and feeding and milking the cows and goats. The drafty, manure scented barn he now rested in was a mockery of the luxury he’d lived all winter. Since leaving the mill Dirk had spent his days searching for other mills and farms to sell his labor; if he was lucky they’d pay him in coins, if he was luckier they’d pay him in meals and a night’s sleep in their barn. They were all kind people, but he never took more from them than what he needed. He kept his old policy; move on, before his name could be remembered. The hot barns made him miss the sleepy warmth of the house, the incense in the air, and the animals that would talk back to him rather than scurry into the bushels of hay. Whenever he began missing and remembering, he would take out his crystal, grip it fast, and forget.

Dirk shifted. A pillar above creaked, and a cool breeze blew through the wooden beams. He shivered and pulled his cloak tight over his shoulders.

Something brushed against his consciousness. Familiar. His nose twitched and he breathed the scent of lavender. A sound buzzed loud, progressively louder in his ear.

It’d been happening the last several nights; he would bolt upright and swat his ear as if a fly had buzzed into it. But he was too tired to fight the gentle press against his thoughts, and allowed the touch. It touched him, quicker and softer than a kiss; Dirk tilted his chin as if to meet it.

Found you.

A weight pressed down on his body, and Dirk sunk into the ground, paralyzed. His eyes would not open. A memory was touching him, a lucid dream. His heart hammered against his chest.

Skin; warm skin, soft hands, grazed down his face, neck, chest, stomach. Dirk’s body burned.

Found you. I’m so happy, so happy.

A booming voice only in his head. Dirk couldn’t scream.

Where are you? Where have you been?

He listened as the voice unwillingly uprooted the anguish he’d desperately buried. No matter which way he tossed and turned the sound would not leave.

Dirk, why did you leave?

His lips trembled when he spoke. “Because I am a coward.”

Come back to me. We were happy together. I was so happy.

“It would not have lasted.”

You do not know that.

The fear Dirk felt was shadowed by the sorrow, the pull of the feelings trying to drag him away, and the silent pleas in the hands touching his ribs. He inhaled sharply when fingers dipped into his chest, plunging cold and deep. The cold rippled. Wetness brimmed his closed eyes.

“I do. There is only misery at the end of the path we walk. I saw it. We cannot be together.”

Misery? What is misery? Is it the misery of my ignorance before I met you, or the misery of after you left me?

“I will not say.”

That familiar, terrible voice wavered, and the cold of the fingers inside him sank deeper.

Dirk, please, come back. I want to see you.

The voice paused.

…I want to be with you.

Icy fingers brushed his heart. Dirk clenched his teeth. He would never feel warmth again.

“I do not want you. Leave me.”

The voice hesitated over its next words. Stuttered.

But I thought...were we not happy? Did you not feel for me how I felt for you?

“Never.”

Dirk…

The cold spread deeper, and deeper.

Dirk, I thought you…

“You were wrong. Leave.”

But I-

“LEAVE!”

Dirk’s eyes flew open, and he saw nothing but the high ceiling and a rushing wind that escaped the barn in a wailing gush. He sat up, shivering in cold sweat as the whispers of his nightmare drifted further and further away. He sighed, buried his face in his hands, and did not move for many hours.

 

 

They say that, if you were to look at the wood, and the trees, and the flowers that grew on the forest bed, you could feel the sorrow that was killing them. There was a terrible beauty in the way the meadow wilted, as colors dripped from petals and leaves like a drowned painting. The decayed, rotting corpses of the flowers began to pile, and stepping over them was like wading through thick, wet mud. The wood from the trees was warping and molding to black, and the fruits and nuts that had been ripening had swarms of ants and roaches eating them alive.

The first to leave were the birds. They were always flighty things, but even the pigeons hesitated when they decided it was for the best. Then it was the deer, and the squirrels. Everyone else quickly followed. The wood had never felt so desolate, and sad.

Jake sat up against a tree closest to the mill. He watched the creek, and the fish that were swimming upstream and out of the forest. His nose was dripping, and his eyes were red. He must have been cold.

“Wipe your nose, deary,” said Mrs. Fox, approaching as slowly as she could with a tissue in her mouth. Jake took it and blew his nose with a loud ‘hrrnk.’

She did not know how to console the boy, and she did not understand what he was feeling, so she carefully crawled into his lap, and curled into a warm ball under his hands. She heard the tiniest sniff from above, and when she looked up, Jake’s lip was quivering and his eyes shimmered with tears.

“You’re going to leave too, aren’t you, Mrs. Fox?”

She could not say no, for that would be a lie. So she burrowed closer to him and purred when he pet her beautiful tail.

They did not exchange any more words. Occasionally he uttered the softest sniffle. The sky dimmed and the moon waxed pale and bright, but Jake didn’t move. Mrs. Fox quietly slipped out of his lap, and so he let her.

The boy was alone.

 


 

 

The sun was harsh to Dirk. His pale skin was incapable of absorbing light, and wherever he did not burn he freckled. His stomach was flatter, and the dark circles under his eyes had deepened with his heavy frown. What once brought him joy now turned his thoughts sour, and he would hurriedly pass fields of flowers, or forests, willing them to disappear permanently once his eyes had turned away.

But the memories would follow. Lingering, sticking to his dreams worse than feathers in tar. They’d remain after he’d wake. He’d find leaves growing from his hair. Flowers would make a bed of themselves underneath him while he slept. Moss would fester on the rocks he rested on while he travelled, and bees and butterflies would buzz maddeningly around his head until the sun fell and they retreated to whatever dark crevice they resided in.

Animals, birds especially, followed closely; though they could not speak to him Dirk felt that they knew what he had done, and they loathed him for it. Their accusation gleamed sharply in their tiny black eyes. The added burden of their hatred was only a small ripple in the ocean of his own, for he knew none could despise himself more than he– not even Jake.

A robin settled herself on a branch nearby to stare. Fed up with the nonsense he faced the bird aggressively.

“What do you want?”

His voice was harsh but the bird did not care; she fluffed her wings and stared apathetically at him.

Dirk’s anger sparked. “Well? If you’ve got something to say, spit it out!”

The bird stared.

“Cat got your tongue, eh? Then fly away why don’t you! Leave me in peace.”

He could almost hear the bird’s snort, her titter of condescending laughter. It only kindled Dirk’s anger further.

“I made my decision. Jake doesn’t need me. He is the river, the water running through the streams and the leaves and buds off the branches; he is timeless. I am- I am the rock stuck to the edge of the creak, waiting for the shore to erode me away. He will move on, he will change. But I…”

Dirk gripped his crystal, feeling it give off heat like the skin over a beating heart.

“I will fade with time.”

She cocked her head curiously, then flew down to nestle on his shoulder. For a moment he thought she would whisper something in his ear, but she only pecked his earlobe. He swatted her away with a shout.

As she flew back to her branch she left a white feather behind. He plucked it from the air. Yet, as he did, the feather began to change color, deepening to a rich, blooming spring green.

He dropped it as if it burned him. The moment he let go, the green bled to an inky, raven black, and sank to the dirt unceremoniously where it dissolved to ash the moment it touched ground.

The crystal was glowing. He breathed in heavy rasps, and darted his eyes back to the robin on the branch. She had gone.

He clutched his stomach fast, as if trying to hold back the horrible rock forming deep inside it. The ashes of the feathers blew away with the wind, gone. Dirk swallowed and turned heel, hoping to leave this memory behind like all the others.

 

The city was a murky pool of thieves, peasants, and the worst of sinners all mixed together in a shallow stupor. They all seemed to congregate in the town square, where Dirk sifted amongst the grime and thick body odor to the heart of the crowd. Merchants and vendors sat like vultures on the curb with their products. None approached him. He seemed tense, with his tightly pressed lips and stern brow. Hooded and reserved, Dirk was able to blend seamlessly with the crowd.

The robin could hardly keep her eye on him. He was fast, but not careful; in his wake blew the pollen of dandelions. His dark cloak billowed with the lengthy stride of his legs. He caught more than just the robin’s eye as he walked, but in his own eyes there was a dark distance, a dull faded light that caused the crowd to part for his path like the sea. The little bird may have been afraid had she not known who he was, and what he had done.

Dirk stopped at a street corner. He spoke curtly to the vendor, a thick and heavily bearded man, and little bartering was done. He purchased a knife at a steep bargain to the bitterness of the seller. Quickly stuffing the leather bound dagger in his pocket, he shuffled away with his head down and eyes to the ground. Just around the corner, his ears caught a familiar, heart stopping word.

“Witch!”

The shrill, gravelly voice had shrieked directly into his ear, and for a moment he thought it was directed at him. But he saw who had shouted it; an old, sagging and decrepit woman, with more missing teeth than hairs on her head. She was staged in front of a modest huddling of curious passerby. Some held mild interest; others seemed distressingly invested as they chewed their nails like an ear of corn. He quietly joined the fray and listened to her stories.

“Evil, dark, unholy demons,” she hissed. Her curdling smile rose goosebumps on Dirk’s neck. “Beware of the demons. They come in many forms, beautiful and ugly alike. Do not be fooled by their sweet, clever tongues, their riches and beauty, or their power! They are His undoing so you all beware! You gots ‘ta be wary for them pretty ones, and the mens too. The mens are extra powerful, and extra handsome. They’ll sing yer daughters kindly words and take them to bed, and they’ll steal their virgin bloods and sacrifice their souls to the divil!

An eruption of whispers spread among the people. Some left, others gathered closer. Dirk folded his arms across his chest, feeling the warm, hard edge of the crystal press against his skin.

“There’s all a tumult of debate across the ocean. People be thinkin’ witches have souls. That they feel. Well, tha’ may be true, but I sure soon as chop my own toes off before I think a witch burnin’ be less entertaining than a hangin’.”

Cheers across the gathering, even among the folks in the foreground who picked up the excitement.

She sneered. The crowd’s enthusiasm fluffed her already haughty ego. With a whisper that made all ears lean forward, eyes widen, and breath pause, she hissed:

“…I hear, tha’ a male witch- a wizard! Is upon us.”

And all the breath was released in a single rush. The hag leered.

“He’s been hiding in tha’ nearby forest for ages they say. Sucking up the life of the earth and such for his unholy feeding. An ancient power is amongst us all, gentlemen. Beware. There be a storm approaching, and it’ll be a mighty ferocious one. I feel it in my bones.”

The story had reached its pinnacle; a coin hat was passed around the gathering. People were leaving, and as the crowd thinned, Dirk stood very still. Her moist, sagging eyes were peering directly at him.

He turned heel and left as quick as he could. In his fingers he clutched the crystal until his hands cramped and shook. Weaving through stalls, people, stores, homes, darting down alleyways just to breathe a bit, his thoughts scattered and bent and spun round and round just as he did. Disoriented, Dirk turned another sharp corner and smashed hard into something solid. Thinking it was a wall, he cursed, but he saw the womanly figure and immediately apologized.

“That’s a pretty necklace ya got there, sir.”

The crazed woman stood in front of him with a wicked grin. Flashing her dried gums at Dirk, he took a cautious step back. Her eyes were fixed on the crystal. He quickly tucked it under his shirt.

“Back away, hag, and keep your nose out of my business. This necklace is worth more to me than my own life.”

“Looks like it,” she sneered. “Ya seem a bit frazzled boy. What be troubling ye?”

He calmed his breath. “Nothing.”

“Well I’ll be damned if it was nothin’. Nothin’ make a face like that but a terrible thought. Tell me what planted tha’ seed to yer terrible thought.”

He stared incredulously at her. The pink glint of her eyes must have been from some disease; he wondered if she could see him properly.

Dirk closed his eyes and pursed his lips. He didn’t know why he was answering her question so easily. “I am worried, for someone that I know.” He looked down. “He might be in trouble.”

And the hag smiled a beaming, brilliant smile, a genuine grin filled with joy and satisfaction. “So you do care. How perfect. Lovely!”

He blinked once, then leaned forward. “Sorry, what?”

She reached her scraggly fingers towards his face and snatched a falling piece of pollen from Dirk’s hair; he hardly had time to flinch. “This. This is the stuff of magic, boy. Best not be hiding what you’ve done from me, because I can already see everything in your eyes. I know.”

Instinctively Dirk’s hand came down on his pocket where he felt the outline of his dagger. “Who are you?”

She grinned once more, staring through his eyes, and released the pollen into the air. With it the down dissipated into the wind in a widening gyre, as did she, round and round as her hair, skin, and clothes rose to the sky and vanished until nothing was left but a small, tiny, fluttering little bird.

The robin winked, and it was familiar; a sort of betrayed feeling rose up in Dirk’s chest and his fingers darted to his ear that had been pecked.

“That hurt, you know?”

The laughter in her eyes was present in the air. Once again, her little body turned to wind, and she was transformed; but rather than a hag, she stood in front of him as a petite, beautiful young woman.

Out of politeness, he bowed to her; she said nothing until he spoke first.

“Tell me your name.”

She shrugged. “You may call me what you wish.”

He snorted. “Then I’d call you bird or hag, and neither of us would agree that suits you.”

She smiled a toothy grin. “All right. I am the dawn, and I am the brightness of the sun’s rays that shines over the mores and the rivers. What do you call that?”

Dirk shook his head. “I haven’t a thought…” He clicked his tongue. “Roxanne was my mother’s name. Would that please you?”

She nodded excitedly. “Very.”

He took to calling her Roxy, as a sort of variation of the word ‘birdie,’ and she seemed to like it enough. But she would never say Dirk’s name. Thief, she’d command casually, that is your name and that is who you are. It was shameful and demeaning. Dirk understood very quickly that she was angry with him, somewhere in the back of her mind, so he never argued with her on the matter.

He took her to a pub in the city side, where live music was thumping and singing upstairs. She refused a drink though and settled with milk.

“I have it that ye never had a lady refuse a drink from ya,” Roxy said as she sipped her milk. “But I’ll tell ya that I’ll never taste a sip of alcohol again.”

Dirk spoke very little in comparison to her. It was as if she’d make up for her lack of words from when she was a bird, and she was a bird often. When he was not walking in public streets or sitting in cafés he was travelling, and she was flying above his head in flittering pirouettes.

“If you care about the boy, why not return to him? Stop moping about, you’re making me sully.”

“I’m fairly certain I’ve already told you why I can’t stay with him.” His eyes glanced around the pub, and once he was sure there were no lingering gazes on them, he leaned close to her and murmured, “You have said I have magic. What does that mean?”

She smiled and leaned back. “Aye, magic. Magic that’s poisoned, that is. You’ve seemed to have stolen it, thief.” Dirk cringed. “Why do you think tha’ is?”

“I don’t know.” He watched the bottomed remnants of his drink swirl in his cup as he twirled it passively. “Jake is fine. You were once a resident of his forest, right?” His eyes hardened. “That’s how you know of him, right?”

Roxy shook her head and finished her drink. “I never lived in any one place. I am not a simple animal.”

He waited on the edge of his breath for her to continue. She took her damn time.

“…Witches are part of covenants. We are family. My mother knew his grandmother, as a matter o’ fact–”

Dirk stood violently from his chair, and the screech was loud enough to turn several heads. He bashfully looked away and beckoned her into a private room.

Here there was only a table and four chairs. The singing and laughter and clinking of glasses was just a muted muffle. Dirk did not bother to hide his intrigue in this darkly lit room. But he begged her to keep her voice low.

Anyways, my mother knew her. She was a very powerful member of the pack, I hear. Then one day she just up and left. That’s a common thing, we otherworldly beings need privacy as well, but she never reported she had a grandson.”

Her silence to Dirk was deafening. Roxy grinned darkly.

“So I’m flying about this little village on the edge of the wood, mindin’ my own business, when I see a ruckus going abouts in the court house. I peek through the window and see just about every inch o’ the place is piling with men screamin’ and shoutin’ at each other, all about this demon that be frightening them. They say the demon lives inside the wood, killing the forest and sucking up all the goodness. Curious as I was I went into the forest to see what was going ons. And what I found, oh dear, it’s worse a stain on my eyes than blood on britches.”

They both shuddered; Roxy went on.

“I found a man in this isolated house. The place was of magic, obviously, but it reeked of ruin, and so did he. Oh, but he was a sight for sore eyes. Beautiful in his hollowness. The place frightened me though, and I woulda’ carried on away but he looked right at me. I was just a lil’ bird, by the way, not this beautiful figure you see before you; but he smiled and began to speak to me.”

She cleared her throat. It was as if she was telling another entertaining story, and it unsettled Dirk greatly. One of his fists was clenched under the table.

“Speaks to me as if he’s spoken to animals his whole life, he does. Wouldn’t have thought anything of it had he not spoken as if he didn’t expect an answer in return. He tells me all about his grandmother and how ever so lonely he has been since her leaving him. Then he tells me about you.”

Roxy was still grinning. She stared at Dirk, knowingly, as he pressed his lips together tightly.

“He loves you very dearly.”

Dirk looked down.

She traced her finger around the rim of her glass. He opened his mouth several times, and closed it.

“…You are a witch, then.” He hadn’t a clue what else to say.

Roxy beamed. “Yes! I have been traveling for some time on my own now, and in all my life I have never heard of a male witch. They’re exceptionally rare. It’s no wonder she hid the boy. In time, as more witches find out, they might go after him…”

Dirk swallowed.

“Fortunately for you, I sympathize with your story, so I won’t be chasing after him.” And she winked. “For now.”

Becoming very upset and mildly sick, Dirk sat up slowly and excused himself. When outside and taking in the fresh air and sun, he felt slightly better. Of course, Roxy was right by his side, sitting on his shoulder with a fluttering whisper.

“I’m going to see him,” he said heavily. Roxy blinked. “He will not see me. I will just make sure everything is all right. That is all.”

She flew above his head; she seemed to be asking him to follow her. Without thinking on it much, Dirk let her lead the way. They set on, down and down a winding, unstable path, where light grew less and less and the world seemed a little bit colder.

 

From a distance the wood appeared to be the same as he had first found it; tall, sky scraping trees, and a foreboding warning humming within. But in summer the leaves were rich and green and the sky was bluer. It should have been easier to make their way inside.

It wasn’t. His hands began to twitch, and more often than not he found himself swiveling about his head whenever he heard an unsettling noise. Despite the verdure and lush, the wood felt lifeless. Not once did an animal pop out to say hello. He felt no eyes on him. These woods were strange and unfamiliar. It made his stomach churn.

He knew the moment they passed the barrier. Roxy kept close. She seemed to be unsettled as well. The closer they came to the mill, the more wild, contorted, and grotesque the trees became. Dirk kept his head up and looked through the branches and to the sky. It was obscured by a billowing black cloud. Humidity made breathing laborious. Closer and closer they went, and soon, the leaves became brittle, the branches gaunt and sickly, and where the ground was not moldy mush it was hard and dusty. The sun did not exist in this place.

He saw the mill first.

Agony, crippling, cruel agony, set him aflame. His blood was a river of oil and fire singed through his veins. Dirk collapsed on the ground and clutched desperately at his throat. Roxy changed immediately into her human form and knelt by to help, but could not tear her gaze away from the mill.

Burned to rubble. The little stone house was nothing but ashen rocks and piles of smoldered wood. The mill was gone. The creek that should have been overflowing was dry.

Dirk couldn’t breathe. He tried to look to Roxy, the ground, his crystal, anything but the house. He hunched forward and clawed through the ground.

Talons.

Roxy kneeled beside him. He whispered harshly to her.

“I saw this happen,” he hissed. His spine curled and he slammed his fist into the ground. “I dreamt it. This would have happened even if I stayed, even if I had chosen to keep him happy, but–”

He cried out. This magic was painfully familiar. Dirk rushed to get his words out.

“We would have both been taken. We would have both died.”

And he knew where Jake was. Trapped in a cell, cold, hungry, and suffering where Dirk deserved to suffer in his place. He saw the noose swaying in the air, the pair of boots dangling above the ground. At least if he had stayed, they would have been together.

Dirk choked. “My leaving was meant to free him from that fate.”

Roxy patted him on the back sympathetically. She waited, cringing at the cries he would barely let out, until the light bled out of his hair, skin grew feathers, and again, his blood, a liquid inferno, had burned to black.

The raven shuddered and gasped. Roxy sighed, her eyes glimmering at the mill.

“What beautiful magic,” she whispered in awe. “What a beautiful curse.”

He hadn’t the energy to speak, so she spoke for him.

“Magic is still here, and magic is still within you. What you have done has angered it. You will suffer like he has. You will suffer, until you fix what you have broken.”

And yet her fingers were so gentle as they caressed his feathers. Dirk was far away, somewhere where pain did not exist, where he was not a failure, and where his choices did not cause the pain of the people that he cared for most.

And so he slept: Roxy transformed into a bird as well, and they lay together in the dirt for warmth.

 

 .

 

“In the name of Jesus, spirits from the netherworld, spirits between, over and around those praying and those prayed for, and all familiar spirits are completely bound and forbidden to manifest – in the name of Jesus.”

Again.

“In the name of Jesus, I bind and break the power of all curses spoken, all rituals or sacrifices, all divination, spells, incantations, meditations, and all sorcery or magic. I release and call upon the Spirit of the Lord...the spirit of Jesus.”

Again.

“In the name of Jesus, I place shields of Faith over the minds of those persons to protect against infiltration from end-time mind control.”

Again, again, again, AGAIN.

“In the name of Jesus…”

“In the name of Jesus…”

“In the name of Jesus…”

“STOP.”

Jake covered his ears. He couldn’t take it anymore. “Please, I beg of you, I have been listening for hours!”

The priest frowned sadly at him, then turned to the Brother at his side. They nodded solemnly, and left Jake crouching in the corner. When the wrought iron bars shut and locked, and he was alone, he let himself wipe his eyes and calm his breath.

From the corner of the cell, he heard the little squeak of a mouse. He smiled and curled his feet towards himself.

“Hello there…”

The mouse was sniffing towards his food plate. He hadn’t touched it yet. Jake took a crumb of bread and offered it to the mouse, and laughed as its little hands took it all and scarfed it down in a single bite.

“I’m glad one of us likes this food.” He glanced at the plate and grimaced. It wouldn’t hurt to skip one meal. Jake looked at the mouse that was focused on the rest of his food.

“Have you been here long as well?”

The mouse said nothing.

“…I don’t know how long I’ve been. I’d do anything for a bath, haha.”

Again, the mouse was quiet. Jake sucked his lip.

“Won’t you say anything? There’s nothing to be afraid of. I won’t harm you.”

The mouse met his eyes, and Jake’s heart fluttered; but it only snatched another crumb from his plate and scurried off as fast as it could.

He watched it leave and felt tears pricking his eyes.

His thumb brushed over the little raven and arrow on his scarf. It was hard and crusty with dirt, but he didn’t care. When he looked at it, he was no longer in the cold prison but in his warm home, with–

He bunched up the scarf in his fists.

Jake had figured it out long, long ago. He had plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to wonder, and ask, and blame.

Of course it was his fault.

Everything had been so wonderful. Jake had never been so happy than in that time before the spring. Warm words, warm thoughts, warm skin. He touched his fingers to his lips.

He might never know what he did to upset Dirk, but there was a reason he left. It was Jake’s doing. It was his fault that Dirk did not want him, it was his fault that he was taken by the humans, and it was his fault that he was in this cell. If Jake had not upset Dirk, they would still be together, speaking in undertones by the fireplace while summer dropped in slow beams between the trees outside.

The food rotted with his thoughts. The mouse, which had been spying on Jake and the food in the darkness, left with disappointment. A bird fluttered onto the opening in the wall high above his head, where only the smallest rays of light were allowed into the room. The shadows that cast across the prison floors stretched as tall as a man.

The bird fled when the bars of the cell creaked open. Jake lifted his head and again saw the priest. Two others followed him. Jake cringed.

“Please, if you would let me rest-”

“We are not here for that, lad. Come with us.”

Jake looked warily between the three and stood. One of the men took to gripping his arm steady. Rope tied his wrists behind his back.

They pushed him into the sunlight. Blinded momentarily, he could only hear the crowd that he was being dragged through. They shouted, screeched, and hurled vile insults. He was pulled too forcefully to keep up, and although he tripped and stumbled they did not slow down.

Jake was forced onto a wooden stage in front of the incensed crowd. He felt safer above them all, away from their fire and pitchforks. Though their teeth were barred and their words were fierce, their eyes shone with fear. His own eyes were drawn to a stool at the center of the stage. Behind it was a stake, and from it dangled a noose.

Jake’s legs buckled. A bruising hand pulled him up again, but his legs wouldn’t cease their trembling.

The priest emerged onto the stage, and the crowd hushed. He took out a parchment from his pocket and read it with a booming, stern voice.

“This unholy demon that you see before you has committed the crime of witchcraft, and has refused to repent. The punishment for his life of heresy is death, where he will be hanged by the neck until his soul has left his body. Any of those who oppose must state their business now.”

“Burn ‘im!”

“Roast his bones!”

“Feed him to the dogs!”

The crowd shook the earth with their rage. Jake felt cold, and his dead eyes rested just above the people’s faces.

A robin flew above the stage. It was ignored, and it fluttered unnoticed above the stake and atop the rope. The priest went on.

“Evidence of his satanic practices is within the wood that is now tainted with death. Two young boys who claim he performed his magic maliciously upon them witnessed his rituals. He communicates with animals and performs satanic transmutations upon humans. His house of residence was investigated, and objects of demonic origin were discovered. The house was promptly burnt to rubble.”

Jake remembered the boar. He remembered his home alighting the forest with fire, the first light it’d seen in months. He remembered his hatred and his sorrow. Now, he felt little more than the ropes rutting into his skin.

They dragged him to the stool, and when he stood atop it they draped the rope around his neck. The scarf was ripped away from him. His cape, his shoes, and his belt were all taken, and thrown into a pile at the front of the stage. The items were doused in oil. Above him, the robin tweeted. He did not hear her.

“In the name of Jesus Christ…”

Jake did not listen. A raven flew in large circles above the stage. It watched silently.

“I unbind and break thee from all unholy spells and enchantments…”

Someone lit a match, and it was tossed into his pile of clothes. He watched the scarf burn. Jake closed his eyes.

“…For justice, the salvation of the people of this village, and for his own salvation, I send this demon back to Hell from whence it came.”

He was sorry. He was sorry for his magic, for disobeying his grandmother, and bringing so much fear onto these people. He was sorry for destroying the forest, and his misery. He was sorry for meeting Dirk. He was sorry for loving a man.

The raven dived onto the stage. It cawed and screeched at the man tightening the rope around Jake’s neck. While all eyes were on the raven the robin began to peck at the rope.

Women in the assembly screamed. Several pointed at the raven. ‘Familiar!’ they cried. The man clutched his eyes and wailed, clawed bloody, and stumbled away from the noose. Before he fell he kicked the stool from underneath Jake’s feet.

But the rope had been severed. Jake dropped to the ground, and the raven circled his head as the fire began to grow and grow.

Jake did not see the fire. He didn’t hear the people, or see them trying to climb the stage to finish what had been started. He only saw the raven that quietly settled before his eyes. Jake stared, and stared. The raven stared back.

“Dirk?”

The raven cocked his head. Jake’s voice cracked.

“Why…why are you here?”

A swarm of men had gathered onto the stage. They grabbed Jake by the hair and pulled him up, but he fought. He kicked and he writhed and he screamed. Dirk leaped into the air; his flailing wings sent feathers into the chaos. Tears streamed Jake’s dirt stained cheeks.

“You left. You left, and you’re back. Why did you return? Why are you here?

Dirk could not answer. But he fought with Jake; his claws tore at arms and eyes, and blood splattered against Jake’s face, stained Dirk’s black feathers. The robin watched.

There were too many. They were all so much stronger, and he was swept away as easily as a drowned man. Jake was restrained, forced to his knees with his head bent down. He clenched his eyes so tightly no tears could fall. The raven could not be caught, and flew in panicked circles in the air. His caws reverberated across the skies.

The priest dismissed the extra people off the stage and calmed the crowd. They seethed but listened. He began to pray, and the people slowly joined him.

“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”

Jake was so close to the fire he could feel its heat. Within the crowd, a crossbow was mounted into place.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”

Cheers erupted among the people. As the crossbow was pulled back, Jake lifted his eyes. The arrow was pointed at him.

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory…”

The priest had to shout over the claps and clamor of the crowd. The arrow was released.

“…Forever and ever.”

 

Jake opened his eyes. Something warm and heavy rested in his lap. He looked down.

The raven lay still. The arrow that had struck him pierced straight through his body, and the hot blood that began to soak through Jake’s trousers oozed black over the stage. Jake breathed slowly.

“Dirk?”

A glow overcame the bird. His feathers dripped off his body, and as his wings grew, his beak disappeared. Talons receded into nails. Dirk’s pale skin erased the black, and blond, feathered hair grew from his head. Jake held him up, staring at his face. He waited for his eyes to open.

“Dirk? Dirk, wake up. Come now Dirk, open your eyes.”

His voice shook. A pair of quivering hands cupped Dirk’s cool face. Still, his eyes would not open.

Jake whispered, softly. “Dirk, please…”

The crowd was in hysterics. Many had fled upon seeing the transformation. Others were gathering their stakes, their fire, their daggers. As they again began to climb the stage, the robin sprang into the air and descended on the angry mob. She landed within the fire, and as she touched it the flame grew into a conflagration. It swallowed the stage whole, and only barely did the priest manage to escape the heat in time. The people scrambled to flee as black smoke billowed into the sky.

A drop of water landed on Dirk’s cheek. Jake thought it was rain, but when he looked up, no rain was falling. The teardrop joined the rivulets of blood running down his face.

Jake sobbed. His fingers caressed Dirk’s pale face.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dirk, I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”

He was so cold. The fire that was engulfing the stage, the blackening skies, was not enough to warm them. Jake held Dirk close.

“It’s my fault.”

As he pressed himself into the crook of Dirk’s neck, he felt a hardness between their chests. Jake looked down and saw the dim glow of the crystal.

The light was fading. It flickered, as if doing its best to stay alive. Jake touched it; there was warmth, barely there.

He heard a small breath. Jake’s eyes darted up and he clutched the crystal firmly. Dirk’s lips hardly moved. When they opened, blood dribbled from the corner.

“You are…not to blame.”

His eyes slid open. A cold hand touched Jake’s wet cheeks.

“I am sorry. For…” He closed his eyes. “Everything.”

Dirk’s thumb wiped a tear away, then rested on Jake’s hand over the crystal.

He let out a breath.

 

 

“No…” Jake touched Dirk’s face. Shook him. He raised his voice. “No, Dirk, wake up, wake up!”

The fire surrounding them began to die. He couldn’t control the clattering of his teeth. “Dirk!”

Soon, nothing was left of the fire but the heated, charred wood of the stage. Jake took his hand from Dirk’s face and came away with blood soaked fingers.

He stared at the blood.

Quickly, carefully, Jake stepped away from Dirk and laid him down, gentler than a flower on a gravestone. His bare feet stepped in the pools of blood but he paid it no mind. He scooped the blood into his palms, and with his fingers drew a large circle around Dirk. At the center of the circle was the crystal, resting above Dirk’s heart, and a single black feather, singed and bloody.

The robin sat herself on Dirk’s chest. Jake shooed her away frantically, but she did not leave.

“You must leave, or you will be entangled in the spell!”

As if understanding, she fled from the circle and landed upon Jake’s shoulder. He spoke to her, mindlessly.

“He’ll be okay, he’ll be okay. There’s still light within the crystal. I can save him. I c-can…”

Light was fading rapidly from the sky. A quiet hummed in his ears, loud, inescapable. He knew he was running out of time. His words were trapped in his hammering heart.

Then the robin began to sing a song. It was slow and solemn, and Jake felt the music reach into his chest and saturate his body. It calmed him. He breathed deeply.

Slowly, he knelt beside Dirk’s body, and rested his hands above the arrow in Dirk’s chest. The robin escaped into the sky. He closed his eyes.

Fire began to lick the edges of the blood circle. It was burning him, eating the flesh of his toes and ankles. Jake clenched his teeth and whimpered. Through his closed eyes, he felt warmth in the air, pouring out of Dirk’s body. His lips trembled.

“Forgive me, Dirk.”

He grasped the arrow and ripped it from Dirk’s chest.

Blood immediately gushed in a torrent from the open wound. The crystal was flooded in deep red, and the feather, smoking at the edges, was consumed.

He was aware of the bird still singing her song, and how the music seemed to hug him as his grandmother would. Jake let his tears fall. Breath waded from his lungs like rivers of mud. He snatched the dagger from Dirk’s pocket, and rested the blade on his palm. In one slash, one painful outcry, the dagger slit his palm. Beads of blood dripped onto Dirk’s body, where it sank into the wound like water into the ground.

The fire receded. His toes were burnt black, but it did not hurt nearly as much as the gash on his palm. Jake carefully wiped his eyes; blood, whose blood he did not know, smeared on his cheeks. It continued to drip from his hand, and with every drip, every tear, the smallest bit of magic dripped from him too.

If Dirk could live, it didn’t matter if he wasn’t magical anymore. He wouldn’t lose Dirk again.

Jake’s eyes slid open. The brilliant shine of the crystal bathed the air with hope. He sniffed, and with quivering arms, kneeled down beside Dirk. He laid his head on his shoulder and his bleeding hand over his heart.

When the gentle thud returned, thumping meekly against his fingers, Jake let out a small breath.

All around the earth let out a breath with him, as the light of the crystal faded with the sun behind the clouds. Jake lifted his eyes up. The moon’s glow was a dim, weak glimmer in the starless sky.

 


 

 

The wood was empty. It no longer felt like home, but a place that was broken, and healing. The air was stale but moving. Grass was reaching through the murk and mold, and heat from the enormous sun was basking the ground in light. The wood had a chance. Jake sighed through his nose, fastened his cloak around his neck, and looked at the mill.

He had tried to clean the rubble and salvage what was left of the ruin. The white washed stones lay in neater piles atop each other, and the ash and cinder had been swept away. Little could be taken from the remains other than several vials that had survived the fire. They now resided in the satchel that hung at his side. The rest would have to be left behind.

Jake turned heavily from the mill, and gazed up through the branches.

Some leaves were doing their best to grow. It lifted the tired lines of his eyes. From the sky a bird descended upon him and settled on the ground.

“I am ready, I think.”

The bird transformed into a man. Dirk came up to him from behind, and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“We will return.”

Jake nodded. “Yes, someday.” He faced Dirk. His smile was soft. “Are you all right like this for now?”

Dirk’s amber eyes glistened. “I will stay a raven for most of the journey. For now, I can remain like this.”

His arms came around Jake, and he let himself be held. He listened to the steady beating of Dirk’s heart, coming from the crystal dangling around his neck. Jake bit his lip.

“Dirk, um…”

“Hm?”

He leaned back. Jake was looking at the crystal. It gleamed amber. When he glanced up, Dirk was looking at him curiously; it made Jake’s heart stutter. He shook his head.

“Nothing.”

Dirk searched his eyes for a moment, waiting for Jake to say more, but he let it go and embraced him again. Jake held him back and buried himself in his chest.

“You know, being part raven won’t be so bad,” Jake heard from above. “I’ll get to travel with you more discreetly, and my portions won’t be so demanding.” He could feel Dirk’s breath against his hair. “And I’ll be able to fly when I please. It’s a small price to pay to see the sun rise another day.”

Jake laughed gently. “I am glad you’re taking to it so well.”

Dirk parted from him. Their eyes reflected each other’s hope. Jake held his breath as Dirk leaned forward to press his lips to his forehead. His voice was a low murmur.

“No man or witch will find us. We’ll be safe, and we’ll have each other.”

Jake watched as a robin fluttered onto a nearby tree behind Dirk.

“Yes.”

His smile was sad; Dirk twined their fingers together and grasped Jake’s hand briefly, before transforming back into a raven. He placed himself on Jake’s shoulder.

Jake gazed at the mill once more. He wanted to say goodbye. Dirk understood his longing, and plucked a feather from his wing and handed it to him. Jake gave him a watery smile, and reverently knelt by his doorstep. The feather laid motionless in the meadow, undisturbed by the wind. Jake bowed his head.

The forest would grow back. It would heal. In time, the animals would return, and so would he.

But Jake would never again belong to the magic that once possessed his home. Some day, when the scar on his palm healed, he would tell Dirk.

They left the wood. Dirk’s shadow stretched behind them, taller than Jake’s. His cloak billowed, and in his wake blew the buds of spring flowers.

 

  

 

 

Fin.