Chapter Four: Max
Even after they tried to imprison me in that infernal shop in London, I flew daily to this same perch and watched as I had done for centuries past. I had witnessed the comings and goings of this old castle for generations, but the boy called Pip fascinated me as no other.
There was nothing remarkable about this boy’s appearance that should make me want to watch him. His hair was brown and his eyes were blue, although he was still unaware of their true depth of color for he had not yet learned to see such things. Still, he fascinated me.
Afternoon snow had turned to evening shadows, and snow still clung to the roof of the ancient place. The boy had crossed along the peak of the steep roof, and now he furrowed his brow, as I had often seen him do. Despite the snow, he meant to follow the narrow ledge around one of the castle’s two towers.
The moon sprung full from the eastern forests. The first stars had not yet appeared. The dogs still slept after the day’s fox hunt. The boy would not need to collect scraps of meat from the kitchen this evening to feed them. The castle already slept. No one who had hunted would stir again until midday tomorrow. No one would notice the boy was not at his station.
He stepped onto the icy ledge.
Above his head, a shutter waved in the breeze, hitting the wall in rhythmless slaps. The window there belonged to the lady of the castle, Hesperus.
Many things had changed since Hesperus’ arrival two years earlier. Much that had once been good had since turned sour.
The downstairs servants whispered about their lady, this woman from the north where the great white dragons once flew. They whispered about the lady’s brother, whose eyes were nearly white. They also whispered about Lord Udolf, her husband, that his life would one day be in danger.
But the boy had not heard these whispers. He only knew his world was changing, and he did not wish for it to change.
The lady had told her stepdaughter Lucia that important young ladies of sixteen should not associate with boys like Pip. He and Lucia had been friends as long as either could remember. He had believed their friendship would never change, but he wondered now if Lucia had chosen to follow her stepmother’s advice.
He would follow the ledge around the tower to Lucia’s window to find out.
It would have been more sensible had the boy changed to a bird and flown to the window, but young Pip had not discovered such gifts.
Above him, a voice from Lady Hesperus’ window drifted on the evening wind.
The boy stopped and tensed his body, expecting to be discovered, but no one appeared.
Soon, another voice followed the first. I tilted my head to better hear.
“Udolf is a good man,” said a man’s voice I did not recognize.
The boy held his breath lest he be discovered. I wondered if he could hear what they were saying.
The lady replied, “Perhaps he is, but what is that worth, really?”
The man spoke again after a pause. “I do not expect Udolf to easily step aside.”
I knew Udolf. I had watched him play on the castle grounds as a boy. Since then he had grown old, as his mortal fathers before him had grown.
“So you agree it must be done?” said the lady.
“I have already made some of the arrangements.”
The boy resumed his mission, moving along the ledge.
Hesperus continued. “When do you think it should be done?”
“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
“We will be hosting the party tomorrow.”
“What better way to do something in secret than to do it where everyone can see?”
My heart nearly stopped when the boy’s foot slipped on the ledge. He found a handhold in one of the stones of the wall and maintained his balance, then continued.
The discussion also resumed.
“How shall it be done?” Lady Hesperus asked.
The man responded. “Did you learn nothing of murder from our dear stepmother?”
Hearing that word, murder, the boy lurched. He reached for another stone to regain his balance, but it pulled from the wall. The boy panicked and groped for another, but one foot slipped again from the ledge.
I tried to use my own thoughts to influence the boy, to calm him, but his thoughts were spinning. Fear, confusion, I could not latch on.
The boy could not regain his balance. He called out as he tumbled from the wall, like a baby bird falling from the nest. He layed motionless in the snow at the foot of the tower.
The sky had turned a deep shade of violet. A lone star had appeared, the evening star. Clouds rolled over the lake to gather in the east over London. The scene could pass for a dream, one from which the boy might never awake.
The man’s voice shouted from the window. It echoed over the snow, jarring my thoughts from the boy.
He had heard the boy. The man stood silhouetted in the window.
He called again, “Hello?”
A second figure joined the man, peering into the evening, Lady Hesperus.
I flexed my grip on the branch, wanting to fly at the window, talons drawn for what these two had caused.
I knew this boy, better than by his ridiculous name. He was the boy with no parents and no family name. He had nothing that wasn’t given him by the kindness and grace of others. I did not wish for him to join those who had been taken by the shadow that hung so long over this house.
“Shadows,” I thought.
The shadow over this castle had so often brought destruction, but perhaps I could protect him with other shadows. I thought of the dark places that grew with the coming night, drawing them from the corners around the castle to form one great shadow and hide the boy.
The two figures at the window remained silent, searching. The man stepped away to investigate.
Finally, far beneath them, the boy stirred. He struggled to his feet, but one leg refused to bear the weight, and he crumbled again in the snow.
Soon, the enormous door at the front of the castle swung open. It cast a yellow light over the blue-tinted snow. The silhouette of the man from the window stood at the threshold, peering down the stairs into the yard.
Pip dragged himself to the base of the castle, but I could not hide the boy in the shadows for long. My magic was not what it had once been.
As the man stepped onto the grounds, I saw him more clearly. He was tall, and his long dark coat did not mask that he moved with an elegant grace. He had left his hat and gloves inside the house, but his bare hands were white as gloves. His face and hair were white as well, and as the man drew closer, I could see that his eyes were nearly white.
It was the lady’s brother, Phosphorus.
He trudged across the snow, laboring, for he was no longer young, and the snow was deep.
Phosphorus crouched where Pip had fallen. A trail led away in the snow, and he had only to follow it.
The shadows hid the boy, but I could not tell how much longer they would hold together.
Pip moved along the base of the wall, carefully as he could with the injured leg, unable to see that the man with pale eyes drew closer. The shadow made it difficult for both of them to see, and soon I could spot neither from where I was perched.
Lady Hesperus remained at her window, driving her long fingers like talons into the sill.
The moon shone through a veil of fog. The snow glistened on the hilltops in the distance. The evening wind blew against Hesperus’ face, a face no longer young and beautiful. It blew through her hair, hair no longer dark as the raven.
I had often explored her thoughts. If she did not grip the sill so tight, she might throw herself to the ground below.
Hesperus gazed at the single star that spun by an invisible thread over the forest, the star after which she had been named.
As a child in the North, Hesperus had learned it wasn’t a star at all. It was something grander, a great burning planet.
Hesperus thought she resembled that star, that other Hesperus. Like that star, she was alone. The backward people here misunderstood her. Like that other Hesperus burning in the sky, Lady Hesperus burned too. She burned with a desire for something more than this mundane existence God or fate had given her.
Changes loomed on the horizon. The great white dragons of the North were dying. Bold new industries promised to abolish the old world order. The old world would fall. A new world would come.
What might her place in this new world be? Something grander than this.
If Hesperus wished to find her place in the new world, she must prepare to accept it unencumbered by those who held to the ways of the past, men like her husband.
As the lithe red dragons shed their old skins before each new flying season, so now must she.
Hesperus leaned out the window. “Change may loom on the distant horizon,” she whispered. “But for me, and for this castle, change shall come much sooner than that.”
In the yard below, her brother returned from the shadows. He was alone.
The boy had escaped, but from the direction he had taken, I feared where he may have gone.
I flew back to guard once more the reason I had haunted for so many years this ancient castle and the surrounding forests.
When I arrived at the clearing, the vast open sky had filled with stars. Marveling at such a sky, those who believed in God would think themselves the center of His creation, but it only reminded me that in the eyes of Heaven, mankind was insignificant.
A rustling of branches soon announced that my fears were realized. The boy had wandered deep into the forest, my part of the forest. He pushed through the thick undergrowth and ducked beneath the heavy branches. Thorns had scratched his arms and torn his clothes.
Young Pip had done right by coming here, even though I wished he had sought some other hiding place. If Lady Hesperus’ brother were to send for the dogs, the boy must push beyond the edge of the forest. The scent of his fear would be easy for the dogs to detect.
I smelled it myself.
Pip froze, listening, although I heard nothing other than his own breath struggling against the cold night air.
Time had not passed enough for the dogs to arrive if they had been stirred from their sleep.
My hopes brightened. Perhaps the sound was some large wild animal. Perhaps it would frighten the boy away, and I would not need to stand guard any longer.
That infernal apothecary shop in London beckoned, and I had to admit I had grown accustomed to its pleasures.
The boy searched a moment longer until his gaze stopped at a branch close to where I sat. I looked about in alarm, wondering what other intruder he had seen, then realized that he was watching me.
It is a startling event when the tables turn and the one whom you have been watching becomes the one who is watching you. I ruffled my feathers in embarrassment.
The boy’s eyes adjusted better to the dark, and his focus on me intensified. He took a step closer.
This would not do. My cover had been compromised. I knew only one possibility.
I spread my wings, knowing their great shining expanse in the moonlight would make me appear larger, more frightening.
It did not help. The boy took another step toward me.
I let out a great “Caw,” knowing its magnitude would surely frighten the boy away.
He stepped closer still. The boy was not afraid.
Did he have no sense? Did he not know that seeing a raven at night was a bad omen, that it meant someone would die?
No, of course not. Pip was not the sort to believe such things, despite the fact that so many of my predictions were quite accurate.
“Danger,” I called out, then made the embarrassing realization it came out only as an awkward “Caw.”
I had no choice but to flee. I landed on a higher branch at the other side of the clearing.
The boy did not see where I had gone.
Now it was my turn to hide in the shadows, but I would not leave my post at any cost.
No one had wandered into this part of the forest for generations, and even if they had, I would not have been so concerned, until recently.
The layer of earth hiding what I had guarded all these years was wearing away, leaving parts of it visible above the surface, and anyone who came near would easily find it.
Now there was snow, but before long the warm sun of spring would return and stir what had long been sleeping beneath the ground.
I shuddered to imagine what horrors might then occur.
A new urgency now drove my interest to watch the boy. Despite my earlier exertions to help him, I must now work against him. The boy had become an unexpected rival.
I watched, my head twitching side to side, gathering as much of this new situation as possible.
Had he not heard the house staff whisper that this part of the forest was haunted, an assumption I had so carefully cultivated through the centuries?
The boy did not appear anxious to leave. In fact, he seemed to be looking for a place to sleep.
My heart beat quickly, then what I had feared most of all finally happened.
The boy noticed the very thing I had wished to hide.
I had to take action. I called out loudly.
The boy looked up, startled, though not frightened.
I flapped my wings ferociously, their fearful span covering the great expanse of the sky.
The boy watched in silence.
Desperate measures were required. I leaped from my perch and flew into the clearing, swooping mere inches above the boy’s bare head.
The boy ducked, but did not run away.
I knew then I must do what I had wanted to avoid. I flew again at the boy, this time, with talons drawn.
The boy’s eyes grew large, and he covered his face with one arm.
I remained within feet of the boy, flapping my wings and shrieking, diving in at intervals to pick at the sleeve of his jacket. The wind from my wings stirred the snow and my calls echoed far into the night.
Finally, the boy relented and loped away, into the forest.
I landed in the snow exhausted and watched him disappear, pleased that it had not been necessary to hurt young Pip. I felt a certain attachment to him of course, but now the boy had seen too much.
And I would be watching the boy called Pip for new reasons.
End of Chapter
The preceding is a weekly fiction series, first-draft chapters of a work-in-progress Urban Fantasy and Suspense Novel set in Victorian London, Chronicle of the Raven, by Terry Heath.
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