In the village of Sandel they tell a tale of how a raven once flew into the village to give a woman seven fine children. Of how these children grew tall and strong if perhaps a bit unwise and untrustworthy, and of how the woman brought a knife to their throats in the hopes of bringing the raven back.
In that village, they are perhaps not overly fond of ravens.
* * *
The youngest of the children, it is said, survived. She was forcibly removed from her mother, who in turn was forcibly removed from the village and tied to a post near the woods. They would not kill, the village, but they would let the ravens take the mother, if they would.
The ravens would not, but cold and thirst did.
The youngest of the children was not allowed to see this. She was instead coddled and comforted, bathed and fed, put into bright clothing that she was seen to stroke in dull fascination. She did little else, and did not talk. The villagers, in kindness, did not expect her to. She was obedient enough, when ordered, and did not fight the children who laughed at the scar on her neck, or left black feathers in her bed. She did not eat much.
* * *
“She should marry a prince,” said some. “She is the raven’s daughter.”
“She should hide in the woods,” said others. “She is the raven’s daughter.”
“She should seek the raven,” said others. “She is the raven’s daughter.”
The raven’s daughter did none of these things. Instead, she went to live in the house of the blacksmith.
* * *
For a time, the raven’s daughter lived with the blacksmith. He was a harsh man, and cruel, but he had only two children, a boy and a girl, since he had persuaded no other woman to join him after the death of his wife. And so he had room in his smithy for the raven’s daughter; a stone floor that held the warmth of the forge long through the night, a place free from feathers and birds. The raven’s daughter gathered bits of cloth, here and there—”like a magpie,” muttered the villagers, but never to her face—pressing them together into something that was somewhat like a blanket, and more like a bright pile of cloth. Each morning, the raven’s daughter moved it from the forge, and then moved quickly through the house, darting here and there, cleaning, picking, making the kitchen shine.
Sometimes his children joined the raven’s daughter in the pile of soft rags, clinging to the stone floor for warmth. On these nights, the raven’s daughter slept above them both, spreading her arms out above them, as if in protection.
“I’ll have no animals in my house,” he said.
But his daughter grasped the raven’s daughter tightly, and his son half rose from his chair.
And so the blacksmith said nothing more, although he watched the raven’s daughter warily.
* * *
In the village of Sandel, they offer prizes to the child who kills the most ravens.
The ravens are cooked into a pie, or roasted upon a spit, and eaten slowly, judiciously, each bite slowly savored. It is a treat, these ravens, and the children eagerly hunt any bird with black feathers.
* * *
As the raven’s daughter grew from girl to young woman, the village of Sandel noticed that she did not, or could not speak, although sometimes, in response to the blacksmith’s children, she would almost seem to try. But the only sound that came from her throat was a faint caw, caw sound, rusty with disuse. They soon gave up expecting more.
The pole where the mother had been left for the ravens was left up in the field; as a warning, perhaps, or merely a memorial for the other children. The raven’s daughter sometimes went there, to look, at the pole and the birds on top of it—red birds, blue birds, brown birds, but never any black birds. They flew off as she approached.
The raven’s daughter said nothing of this, not even a caw, caw.
* * *
This is the tale that the parents of Sandel tell: that sometimes, parents must leave their children, and that when this happens, it is never the fault of the children. They hug their children very close when they say this.
* * *
In the village, the birds did not fly off, and the raven’s daughter could be seen watching them for hours: red birds, brown birds, blue birds, and above all, black birds, with their shining feathers with hints of blue and green.
The villagers did not know what her mother had told her. They did not know what she remembered. But they saw her—sometimes—stretch her hand out to a bird, saw her turn her head when the bird hopped away.
* * *
This is the tale that the children of Sandel tell: that when a parent leaves, and does not come back, it is always, always, the fault of the child, even if the child does not know what was done.
* * *
On cold days, the children of the blacksmith sometimes entered the forge, to play near the fire. They meant no harm and were usually swift to move from underfoot when work called the blacksmith, but not on one snowy morning, when the blacksmith entered on some important job, to see them playing by the fires.
“What are you doing with my fires?” he shouted. He grabbed the nearest object of metal—a sharp axe, meant for killing the hardiest of trees— and descended upon them both.
But before he could lower the axe, it lightened in his hands, and his arm flailed, and he stared as the hard iron shifted into a rain of feathers.
The blacksmith turned, but saw nothing. His daughter—
His daughter seized a feather and pulled it to her chest. If the blacksmith saw, he said no word. But from that time on, his daughter watched the raven’s daughter with glowing eyes.
* * *
This is a tale the villagers near Sandel tell: that voices are not lost, but stolen. That to restore the voice, one must find the thief, and force the thief to give the voice back.
This is another tale that the villagers tell: no thief of voices has ever been found.
And this is a third tale: to restore a voice, something else must be stolen.
* * *
The blacksmith died, some weeks, or months, or years after this.
They found him clutching a single black feather, and black ravens flew over his grave.
Or so the tales say.
* * *
You can bind a bird with copper and iron, feathers and blood.
You can bind a human with little less.
* * *
The tale spread, as tales do, of the daughter of a raven, tall and thin, with bones as fragile as those of birds, who pecked at raw meat like a crow, and who said nothing more than caw caw, from village to village, shifting in each telling. She was a princess. Nothing more than a peasant. A blacksmith’s daughter. A tavern wench. For any man’s asking. A virgin who could turn a man’s fingers into feathers. A woman more beautiful than any other in seven kingdoms, or thirteen, or one. A hag more terrible than any who had been seen.
It was not surprising, then, that strangers began to trickle to the village, seeking the raven’s daughter. One stranger in particular, dressed, according to the tale, all in yellow, all in red, or all in black. A singer, in some tales, a prince, in others, a blacksmith, in still more, and in a few, told in more distant cities, a poet.
* * *
The blacksmith’s daughter had claimed the forge when her father was dead. “I have always liked the fires,” she said, when asked, but never said more, though she often sang at her work, her strong voice reaching through the loud sounds of her tools.
It was noted that she was very skilled at forging sculptures of birds and feathers.
And it was to the forge that the stranger came first, seeking the raven’s daughter. How he knew to find her there, no one tells, but he found the blacksmith’s children, and they were able to tell him enough.
* * *
The tales of the poet are quite straightforward: that he came to the village, saw the raven’s daughter, and found himself robbed of words, and later went to do something more useful than poetry.
This is not a tale frequently told by poets.
* * *
“May I see her?” the stranger asked the blacksmith’s daughter.
“She may see you,” was the not-overly helpful response.
Still, the stranger continued to visit the forge—the blacksmith’s daughter, if not precisely a beauty, was pretty in her own way— and in time, the raven’s daughter came and saw him at the forge. The stranger bowed. The raven’s daughter opened her lips.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed in study. “Again,” he said.
A black feather fell to the floor of the forge, but none of them noticed.
“This can be restored,” he said, stepping up to the raven’s daughter, and taking her face into his hands.
The blacksmith’s daughter swallowed, but no one seemed to see it.
* * *
The tales of the singer are less straightforward: that he came to the village and turned the raven’s daughter into a bird; that he came to the village and left the raven’s daughter great with child, but that she gave birth to ravens, not children, and followed them through the forests to the old raven, her father, who spread his wings about them all save the singer, who the birds swiftly forgot. Or that he came to the village singing his songs, and found himself enamored of an innkeeper’s daughter, or a traveling dancer, or a forlorn princess, quietly forgetting the raven’s daughter, who, dying of love for him, hanged herself in the woods.
The tales of the singer are told somewhat more frequently.
* * *
“Restored,” whispered the blacksmith’s daughter.
The stranger shrugged slightly. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps. If she wishes.”
The stranger bent, and whispered in her ear.
* * *
No one tells the story of the blacksmith, the one who came to the village after hearing the tales of the raven’s daughter.
Perhaps it is not all that interesting.
* * *
“A feather of copper, a feather of blood, a feather of iron, a feather of love,” chanted the stranger. “A drop of earth from her mother’s grave; a feather from her father’s wing. The beating heart of a-year-old raven. And the fragment of another voice.”
The blacksmith’s daughter touched her own throat. “And then?”
“Restoration,” said the stranger, softly. “What more would you have?”
She would have the happiness of the raven’s daughter. She swallowed, and could not speak.
* * *
In the village of Sandel they have a tale of a singer who stole the voices of children, snip snip, so that when he sang, it could be with the voices of pure joy untempered by pain and experience. And thereafter, when he sang, all who heard threw bags of gold at his feet, and he always bought candy for the children who wept.
They have another tale: that when that singer came to the court of a king, and sang, the voices of the children sprang from his throat again, sobbing and crying, and the king had listened with a slow smile, while his wife had rung a single bell, and ordered the singer thrown in the deepest of prisons, one lifetime for every voice he stole.
* * *
“What do you owe her?” asked her brother.
She swallowed again. She was always, always swallowing, and never certain what she was swallowing. “My life, I think.”
“Do you?” The stranger took her hands, and spun them about. “These are strong hands. Sure. In time—in time you might have faced your father, without her.”
“But I did not.”
“Perhaps,” said the stranger, “she saved you from needing to take your father’s life.”
The brother spun on the stranger. “You just want to hear that crow girl talk.”
“I do not deny it,” said the stranger, mildly. “But that is not my gift alone to give.”
“I shall do it,” said the blacksmith’s daughter. Her voice trembled. “I shall.”
* * *
A tale told in whispers: a singer may restore a voice lost or stolen by placing the still beating heart of a raven against the silent throat.
Outside the village of Sandel, no one seems to know this tale.
* * *
The blacksmith’s daughter wished to speak to the raven’s daughter— wished to speak to her friend. With her friend.
Who was out at the pole where her mother had been tied, watching the birds flying from the fields to the trees. She gave the blacksmith’s daughter the faintest of smiles.
“He likes you,” said the blacksmith’s daughter
The raven’s daughter spared a slight glance, and a smile.
“No, he truly does.”
The raven’s daughter placed a single finger upon her throat.
The blacksmith’s daughter reached up on her toes to swiftly kiss the other on her lips. “I am content, to have you like this,” she whispered.
But the raven’s daughter shook her head. I am not, the headshake meant, and many other things, as well.
* * *
This is a tale that the villagers of Sandel tell, that sometimes, parents must hurt their children, not always for punishment, but for reasons the children do not understand. It hurts the parents just as much, the villagers say, and they have real tears in their eyes when they say this. The children should be quiet when they are hurt, and not yell or sob; this only hurts the parents more.
* * *
“I will do it,” said the blacksmith’s daughter.
“If it can be done,” said her brother doubtfully. He was not a believer in tales.
* * *
Copper, iron, blood and love: the feather stolen from the mother’s house; the drop of earth from near the pole, the only grave that woman had ever known; a raven struggling in a cage; the hot forge ready at her hand. The stranger stood nearby and watched as she stoked the fires and heated her tools, and beat out the metal feather.
When it was done, he leaned into her, and swiftly, all too swiftly, kissed her lips, before running his fingers down her throat. She felt a chill, a burn, a chill again. He bowed his head, and touched his fingers to the still hot feather.
“You must do it,” she said, or tried to say. Her voice…rasped, like the sound of a key left in a lock too long. She swallowed. She might speak in the future—she would—but she did not think she would ever sing.
“She is with her mother,” she managed. And if she was crying, that could be blamed upon the smoke.
* * *
The raven’s daughter was standing by the pole, looking upwards into the sky, her arms tightly bound against her body. She turned as the stranger approached, and seemed about to flee, until she saw the blacksmith’s daughter behind him, and her body seemed to unstiffen.
He placed the feather on her lips, let his finger run up and down her throat, as he began to sing, a rich voice that was as unlike a bird song as anything the blacksmith’s daughter had ever heard, and in a language she did not know. She saw the throat of the raven’s daughter quiver in response, saw the raven’s daughter shake, saw—
This could not be
—saw feathers, not skin, beneath her dress.
The raven’s daughter took one step back, then another. Her feathered throat quivered; her head peered up at the sky, at the circling birds above. And with a flap, flap, she was gone, into the trees.
The stranger did not see it, his eyes too filled with tears, and the blacksmith’s daughter would not see it, her eyes too filled with feathers.
* * *
In the village of Sandel they tell a tale of a prince who dreamed of a girl with dark wings, who went from village to village seeking his dream and his love. They tell of how he left trails of emeralds and gold, rubies and silver, bright objects that gleamed with love, and how he sobbed when the beggar children ran to take them into their grubby hands. They tell of how, bereft of gold and gems, he left trails of corn, and sobbed again as a black bird followed him, only to pick out his eyes. They say after this, he became the wisest of rulers, though his reign lasted by three days, and the saddest of ghosts, for even in death, he could not see.
But they also tell the tale of a blacksmith’s daughter, who spent long hours over her fires pounding out delicate sculptures of feathers and wings. Who left feathers cunningly fashioned of iron and copper hanging in the trees. And who was seen, from time to time, to have a black raven resting upon her wrist, and spoke, from time to time, with the slightest of smiles, of seeing the village from the sky.