Crow

The young man stood at the cliff edge, watching a rainbow curve from the green, green fields beside him out to a grey shower smoking over the cobalt sea. The tempestuous wind hurled spirit into his lungs, the air danced as if it saw a vision of Tir nan Og. His bronze hair streamed behind him, his new crimson cloak thrashed round him, and the shield on his arm flexed and strained as if the gripping beasts that circled its roundel had come to life. Round his neck, his silver torc seemed to answer the wind too: cold, warm, heated, chill. My day, he thought, my spring. My life begun, a proven warrior. But for Whom shall it be lived?

No word had come, he admitted to himself, from Goban the smith when he grasped a hammer. Nothing from Aengus when he whispered in a fine girl’s ear, no fire rising to the tongue when he took the Dagda’s own cup and club. No sudden presence in the butts, among the chariots, no glimpse of Lugh the Long-handed on a summer field amid the spears. He looked back to the green fields and out to the rainbow, and made it a silent prayer: Whoever wishes my service, now, give me a sign.

Seagulls wheeled around the cliff salients below him, light as snowflakes against its mossed grey stone. The wind skirled, the rainbow stretched over sea and sunlight, bridge to another world. Is it here or there? he wondered, dazzled. Which end is Tir nan Og?

Darkness snatched his eye-edge. He swung from the rainbow and darkness beat at him along the cliff rim, he gasped once as wind screamed and spasmed and darkness fell on him in a great hissing wave, swamping, sweeping over him, a tumult of broad black breast and huge, thrusting black wings.

He stumbled back on one flash of open beak broad and sharp as a dagger, red within as blood. Closing to a snap! like broken metal, right beside his ear.

And darkness’ eye looked into his, glittering black in black, fixing, knowing him, in that instant’s contact, beyond human words.

When he picked himself off the grass the feather, blacker than darkness, silky smooth as polished bronze, was caught like an arrow in the pin of his cloak, right over his breast.

***

The crush of screaming, running, falling men split suddenly open and the charioteer wheeled his team right-handed, keeping his warrior’s spearhand to the battle, smooth with the ease of years. Foam flew as the pole-horse tossed his head. The white froth stained palely crimson as blood flew too, drops from the yoke-point, the wheel-rims, splatters from the reins, the chariot rim, the warrior’s lifted hand, the shield. Sliding down its bronze, caught in curves of the roundel, splattered from the glistening, dripping, swinging blade of the spear.

The wheels bounced fiercely. The warrior jounced on his feet, the charioteer braced a hip against the rim. Under them, the bump screamed.

Beyond them the battle screamed too, a many-throated monster, a furiously heaving bronze-capped sea where the chariots surged like warships on the waves. But the charioteer’s eye, sweeping the nearer margin, saw fallen men, wounded men, running men. A widening gap, edged with averted backs.

He drew rein, just as the warrior’s hand signaled the motion, closing over his.

The team checked, sidling, head-tossing, as lost in battle-rage as the men. The charioteer shot one quick glance into his warrior’s face.

Blood sprayed cheek and jawbone inside the helmet frame. A speckle of blood crossed the prow of nose. Mouth tight-clamped now, the battle-grin lost. Calculation, under the frowning bronze brows, in the slitted, maybe bronze-colored eyes.

Another five heart-beats. And then a quick, firm nod.

The charioteer eased his breath. He glanced left and right in time with his warrior, and lightened his clamp on the reins. The horses steadied, reading the signal: a breathing space. In this place, with its horizontal wrack of dead or wounded, safe enough.

The warrior tilted his head back, the feathers on his helm glinting as he threw his stare far across the field. A final spray of drops fell, glistening red from glistening black.

The battle-monster’s roar had changed. Attuned to that sound as to his warrior, the charioteer understood.

No need to scourge the other field-rim, where the ebb-tide had also begun. No need to trace the path of each chariot, friends this way, enemy chieftains, with however many a snarl and backward sortie, that way, after their unsalvageable rout.

The charioteer breathed in, carefully, finding bruises, muscle-ache, a scrape down a shoulder point. Dust in a shouting-dry throat. He glanced again across the field and spoke as the thought came. “All over, that last time.”

The warrior nodded. All over, he did not have to say, once again. A line, a skirmish, a battle turned by a single onslaught. A single, deadly accurate, culminating charge.

They stood in the chariot and watched the battle melt. Presently the warrior shook his spear and grounded it, carefully, by his foot. Eased the shield on his shoulder. The charioteer waited. He already knew they would not move until the rout had faded quite away.

Below them, beneath them, around them, the wrack of their passage lay still and bled, or bled and moved, or bled and groaned. Shadow swept across them, cool and sudden, as a cloud passed, white and fair in the zenith of a fine summer’s day. The rout spread its bronze and crimson threads far out over green, green hills, and as the tumult faded another shadow swept over them, giving a hoarse, throaty croak.

Black wings backwatered, wide and tumultuous. Folded in. The crow settled its feet on the lowest branch of the ancient thorntree, the vale’s sole forest survivor, a chariot length away. The creature stropped its beak. Cocked its head. The glittering black eye surveyed them. The beak offered another thirsty, saturnine croak.

The charioteer’s left hand, farthest from the tree as from his warrior, instinctively made the two-fingered horns.

The warrior neither moved nor spoke. Pure dream, pure fear, the charioteer cursed himself, to think a bronze eye turned to greet that black, knowing stare.

He drew his breath in sharply and spoke to cover the sound. His voice came out low and hushed, despite himself. Despite all the years.

“They—always know.”

The warrior answered without turning. With a faint inclination of the head. Yes, it said. They know.

Black flashed again. The second crow came to rest a branch above the first, anchoring feet, folding wings, stropping beak. Cocking head, this time, to survey the ground beneath. Re-cocking it, toward the chariot. Offering the same husky croak.

Of course they know, the charioteer reproached himself. They have taken his leavings time and time again. Fat and full he has fed them, and they follow him onto every field.

The third crow planed in right over the chariot, a passing sweep of dark at which despite all his experience the charioteer ducked. It chose the other side of the thorn-trunk, and it landed facing them. Cocking its head, stropping its beak. Surveying the harvest. Cocking its left eye again to the chariot, for the ritual, greeting croak.

The team stepped backward, once. The charioteer’s hand had tightened unwittingly on the reins. He rolled his eyes sidelong, longing, fearing, hungering, just this once, to ask.

Do They truly know you, lord? Is it truly the War Lady, in Her triple form? Does She come to feed from your hand, after She has given you the battle, as She has given you every battle since you swore your life on that cliff-top? From the first spring you took valor? For these last fifteen years?

He remembered a bard, singing words from Cuchulain’s own saga: They saw him in the chariot, and his sword shining red in his hand, and the light of his courage plain upon him, and the Crow of Battle in the air over his head. Singing in a king’s hall, to honor this warrior. To honor his Ladies, the battle women. The choosers, the eaters of the slain.

The warrior’s shoulder moved. The spear lifted a hand’s breadth, and its blade inclined. His head inclined too. Black helmet plumes rustled and glistened and on the thorntree the crows rustled their plumage as if in reply.

The spear butt re-settled. The warrior straightened, and gestured without looking back toward the thorntree, a familiar signal. We are finished here. The battle is over. Tell the horses, Go.

***

The old man stood at the cliff edge, watching a shower curl toward him over the white-spatched indigo sea. The autumn wind tore at his clubbed, gray-streaked hair and ripped his cloak’s faded roan out behind him like a comet-tail of ancient blood. The chill air stabbed to his lungs’ depth, into the marrow of his bones. He shifted his feet, compensating with effort for the hamstring damage, the hip stab, the lock behind his shoulder that three years had never quite worn away. His hand shut, gnarled and bony, on the haft of the shepherd’s crook that upheld him better than the haft of a spear.

He looked at the green fields and white gulls and watched the shower come, grey as autumn smoke. Twenty-five years since I stood here watching a rainbow, he said in his mind, and wondering about Tir nan Og. Then You came. And I never wondered again.

The first rain breathed over him, stinging cold. My bones ache, he told it silently. My arm flags. My feet stray. Twenty-five years I fed You, on every field I won. Twenty-five years You never betrayed me, in the heat of battle, as You betrayed even Cullen’s Hound. But the battle is done. Though I look, I see no rainbow. Is it not, even yet, time to leave?

The wind’s hiss deepened to the purr of rain. He reefed the cloak in, wrapping it close. Time to go, yes, the future mocked. Back to the Dun, to the hearth corner, to the memory, and the solicitude, and eventually, the forgetfulness of men. The great warrior who swore his life to the War Lady, and was left behind, at the last. Safe from the field, from defeat, from death itself. Safe, but Hers no more.

Is this Her betrayal, then?

The rain wrapped white around him. He turned carefully from the cliff, testing the ground with his crook, and darkness swept at him along the cliff-side in a dripping, flaring whirl.

He staggered as feathers and flying darkness hurtled like a battle-spear, whipping past his face, his cheekbone, his eye, to one glint of living black and one fierce, ironic croak.

He stood till the shower passed, and the sun came swiftly and perversely behind. The sea lit to white-pricked sapphire, the fields shone jewel-green. And the sky kindled. A rainbow stretched to the shower’s rout, bright and clear before him, moving swiftly as a chariot away.

The old man closed his eyes and lifted his face to the last raindrops, and whispered in his mind: Lady, I thank you. At the last, You have kept faith with me. At the last, You bid me go.

***

The dead man walked in darkness down the long, long passageway, looking ahead toward the light. His limbs moved smoothly as air. No bones ached. Something rustled around him to each footstep, and he thought, I have followed the great Hound-warrior. I too have become a feathered soul.

The light opened and he came suddenly out under a great horizontal stone lintel, through a hedge of spiral-carven stones. The Danaan’s own temple, he realized, where the Druids had held vigil. Older than counted time.

Light spread around him, over a sward greener than memory of his own fields’ green. The sea confronted him, sparkling cobalt, the great ocean wind filled his lungs. Gulls screeled below him, and far over the green fields bronze flashed, gold flashed, crimson flew, blades shone gleaming as a host wheeled and battled. Even from where he stood, he knew there would be no blood.

The rainbow slanted up before him, leaning to the distant warriors, running down into a shower’s grey above the dancing sea. He drew a great breath, finally believing where he must be.

Someone came to meet him from the brink of the cliff.

A woman he saw, tall as he had been in his straightest youth. The eyes in her beautiful, haughty, bloodless face were midnight blue, and her hair fell blue-black, glossy as a crow’s wing, flowing to her hips in skeins of silken mist, lifting like wings to the ocean wind. Mingling its blackness with the black of the feather cloak beneath.

The man fell on his knees as he had never done for chieftain or king. “My Lady,” he said. “At last.”

Her voice played on his ears like the truest-tuned harp. “At last?”

“I have been Yours, my Lady,” he said, “the best part of my life. Every blow I struck, every battle I won. I have fed You, Lady, as You fed me. Blood for glory. Fame for flesh. I have been Yours since the day you claimed me. When I asked for a sign. And You came.”

Her feet moved, lifting whitely through the grass. He did not wonder that, home in Tir nan Og, war-gear doffed, she should go barefoot.

“You have served Me, truly, surely,” sang the harp. “Fed Me without stint. But whatever came to you the day you speak of, was not I.”

The grass swung slowly round him. Too shocked for worship, he found himself on his feet.

“Not—You?” The cliff swung again. His eyes clung to the sole stability. The midnight blue of Her stare. “But—You heard me. You gave me a sign. On the field, You gifted me, and I fed You. You spoke to me then. Over and over. You knew my name.”

“I know you,” She said. And smiled.

His senses reeled. None of the bards, he found himself thinking dazedly, can speak truth after all. They call Her terrible, fearful, eater of death, chooser of the slain, blood-taker, blood-shade. Did none of them see She is beautiful, as well?

But presently he swallowed, just as if he had a throat again. Honor, glory, he reproached himself: however gained, are they not enough? And knew, that Whoever gifted them, they were not.

“Lady. You know me. You have received me. But, Lady—if I have lived in error. If You never chose me. If I lived without You, all those years, to die in an old man’s bed …What am I doing here?”

Her eyes met his, midnight blue amid a midnight smoke of lash. Far back in those depths, he thought he saw a sardonic black glint.

“I did not come to the cliff-edge,” She said. “But you believed I did. And believing it, you vowed to Me. Served Me. Matched, mastered the greatest warriors.” Her right hand moved. Almost, it might have been a salute. “Whatever they say of Me, at the last, I am just. So, though you never fed Me of your own flesh, for you, the Door has opened. And you find Me here. With Cuchulain, and Laery, and Oisin, and all the rest.” She glanced away to the distant battle. “In the fields of Tir nan Og.”

“Lady,” he stammered, when the line of her profile allowed him words again. “Lady, I am honored—I am amazed. I am your man, as always. But—if it was not You, that day—Who was it, then?”

Her eyes turned back to him, black-dark in Her snow-pale face. Solemn, the face looked now, as death itself. But She seemed to be smiling, faintly, secretly, a crow-glint behind the darkness, as She spoke.

“Men will see as they choose,” She said. “Believe as they choose. Not the gods themselves can alter that. And sometimes, what men see is right. But sometimes, a crow is only a bird.”

He stared at the ground while the high forts and duns and strong places of his soul crumbled to dust about his head. A lifetime of vain battle, of wasted struggle, of futile achievement. Of keeping faith, where there had been no faith to keep.

She did not betray me in battle, he thought. She did not betray me in death. She has waited until now, that She might betray it all.

Looking down, he did not see Her face change. Or perhaps, only that secret laughter changed, its crow-glint fading to become honestly, repentantly, then ruefully, self-mockingly amused.

He did look up when something touched his cheek. She was offering him a feather. Black and glossy as Her hair, a crow’s feather, shed as crows shed in midair, light and worthless as a fallen leaf.

But She remained his lady, whatever he had been to Her. He took what She gave.

And it changed at the touch of his hands into a great golden armring, heavy as a blade, chased and carven round its circle with the interlocked shapes of three ruby-eyed flying crows.

He had hardly dared to move, let alone essay speech, before She Herself spoke once more.

“Come, troth-keeper,” She said.

He looked up. She gestured him past Her, toward the bright chaos of gold and bronze and crimson on the sunlit green.

“They await you,” She said, “upon the field.”

THE END

[Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She often writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings, and likes to tinker with moral forms of swords-and-sorcery and elements of mythology. She has published eight fantasy novels, including Amberlight and The Moving Water, which were finalists for best fantasy novel in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards. Her short stories appear in Australia and the US, including anthologies from DAW and 12th Planet Press. Her  novella “Spring in Geneva,” a riff on Frankenstein, appeared in October 2013 with Aqueduct Press, and a short story, “The Price of Kush,” was released in December in the anthology Griots: Sisters of the Spear, edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders. She has just signed a contract for the fourth book in the Amberlight series, Dragonfly, with Jupiter Gardens Press.] 

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