A short story written for October 2020's 'Short Shots' competition.
Woman and crow stepped towards the hall doors. Both guards that were stationed outside shared a quick glance, deciding it best just to step aside and pretend that they had not noticed the bird on her shoulder. Siar, as wise-woman, was due the same respect as their leader. Besides that, neither was sure of the powers she wielded and did not want to test them.
The guards pushed open the doors and Siar stepped through them, stopping so that they could not be closed behind her.
“Better that all should hear what I have to say,” she said, by way of explanation.
The light that shone from the hall illuminated the wise-woman’s figure, casting long shadows that spread out far behind her. Never known for her neatness, Siar looked especially unkempt. Her grey robe dragged on the ground, picking up dust and mud; and her hair, although pulled back from her face, escaped its tie in many places.
One by one, those that were gathered within the hall stopped talking and turned towards the door. In spite of the urgency of her message, Siar had enough patience to wait until every single person had become aware of her presence. Then, and only then, would she speak.
“He has broken free of his bonds.” Her voice seemed to echo with a sense of doom around the hall.
Even though she had given no name, everyone present knew who she meant. The demon-weaver! The man that had tried before, and would now try again, to unleash the demons and raise up the dead. Nothing would stop him unless they could find a way to bind him once more.
“But... how?” demanded the elected chief, Penriff. “You and your cousins swore he was held securely, Siar. How is it possible that he made an escape?”
“Because, Penriff, he had help.” The crow spread its wings and the wise-woman waited for it to settle before continuing. “One who sits here now, inside your own hall, worked with the demon-weaver to help set him free.”
Glaring around the room, the leader asked: “Who would have dared?” The anger became mixed with incredulity and betrayal as he looked from man to woman. Nearly all of them returned his own shocked gaze.
“There’s no need for a confession. Carawk was witness and considering how many of her brethren have already perished by the demon’s antics, she will show no hesitation in identifying the guilty.” She turned and whispered to the crow, who then lifted from her shoulder.
Carawk flew directly towards the chief’s own table and landed on his deputy’s head. The man flinched, as the crow’s talons dug into his skin making blood trickle its way down his forehead. Flinging an arm up towards the bird, Vallon swore. “The bird lies! I’m faithful to you all!”
Siar pinned the man to his seat with her hostile stare. “The corvidae do not lie! There is your traitor, Penriff.”
The leader rose from his seat. “Stand up, you fool. How dare you do such a thing and then sit at my table!”
“We need to talk now, for our time is short. May I ask a favor?” The wise-woman broke in.
“Ask, Siar,” Penriff said, still pale with anger.
“Tie the traitor, but do not harm him. The crows will work with us to restore an end to the chaos, provided that they may mete out their own form of justice if and when order wins out.”
Vallon turned to Penriff. “Don’t agree, Sir. I beg of you... They are mistaken... it was not me that went to Gorseford Tor!”
“As good a confession as you are going to get, Penriff. Only you, I, and the birds knew the location of the demon-weaver’s imprisonment. Agree, and the crows will accompany me; disagree and we will walk away.”
“Wait!” Vallon begged. “It is not me who is the traitor! Think about it. Harsken will return our ancestors to us, together with all their knowledge and strength, while she...” he gestured dismissively towards Siar, “brings nothing more than a flock of carrion eaters.”
Carawk bent forward and stopped, his hooked beak just an inch from the condemned man’s eye. Penriff looked from the man he had trusted to the woman, then he called to the guards. “Take him away and tie him up. You’d best hope,” he said directly to Vallon, “that Siar and the crows can undo the damage you’ve caused before it is too late, or I will personally tear you limb from limb and feed you to the hounds.”
Siar nodded in acknowledgement and Carawk lifted up from the doomed man’s head to return to her. “I must hasten away. Tonight is when the demon-weaver will be at his most powerful. If we cannot hold him back then I fear for you all.”
“Is there any way that we can aid you?” Penriff asked.
The wise-woman pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head. “Just keep a good eye on the prisoner.” With that she turned and walked back out of the hall.
Carawk took to the air and issued a call that was returned time and time again from all directions of the sky. The woman strode forward, with a strength and speed that seemed to defy her age. Not once did her step falter, and neither did she stop to scan the skies. She knew her birds would be there, and they began to fly forward in their thousands.
Gorseford Tor stood before her, the sky above it lit up in a fiery red, while that behind her was black with the beating of wing upon wing that together blotted out the last of the dying sunlight. Lightning flashed from the top of the hill, warning Siar to stay back. She threw back her head and laughed, letting her hood fall away to show hair once white but now black as any raven’s wing. Her pupils shone like polished ebony pebbles, as she pushed onwards up the hill.
Harsken held the advantage while she climbed. The birds wheeled and dived but she managed to hold them back. He would know they were approaching and would be eager to lash out and demonstrate his newly reawakened powers. However, he would not yet have had the chance to restore his full force, and that might buy her the time to get into place before the battle properly got underway.
Another flash of lightning split the sky, bringing with it the smell of burning feathers. Several crows dropped to the ground where they burned with an unnaturally intense heat. Siar held out her arm and Carawk landed on her wrist. Bird and woman made eye-contact and conversed through their minds. The crows needed to be patient.
And then she found herself facing Harsken himself. Self-proclaimed demon-weaver, he had made a pact with forces that he believed he could control. Siar almost found herself pitying him, for he was nothing more than a pawn in the demons plans. Once he had unleashed them and had successfully raised the dead, Harsken would be as expendable as the rest of living things.
Backlit in red, his black hair streaming and his clothes ragged, the demon-weaver laughed. Holding his hands cupped together, he conjured a flame which he coaxed and kindled into a ball of flame. Siar expected him to throw it at her, but instead he tossed it up towards her army of corvidae. Quickly she flung up her arms and met it with a flash of ice blue. The battle had begun.
Harsken flung his arms out to his sides and in the air huge grinning skulls began to appear. Four of them at once. Siar summoned forth the crows and they soared in from high and low, diving straight through the substance from which the skulls were growing. Over and over they passed through the thick mist, causing it to disperse or disipate. If they gained full substance, the battle, Siar knew, would go badly.
Carawk took command of the birds, leading them backwards and forwards while the wise-woman faced the demon-weaver. He flung a lance of impure heat towards her heart. She parried, lashed out with a whip of palest blue. It sizzled as it struck the man, then went out. Harsken staggered back but regained his balance. Once again he created a ball of flame but this time when he flung it upwards it dispersed into tiny flames that fell like some kind of deadly raindrops.
Siar smelled her hair singeing, along with the fabric of her cloak. She knew she should put out the tiny fires, but this was her moment, for Harsken was laughing, tasting victory. He looked up to the sky at the crows lit up by his flames, and at that moment of inattention she struck.
A thin blue strand coiled its way towards him, then tightened like a noose. The demon-weaver had noticed that he was being held and began to fight back, but Siar continued to mentally haul on the coils until Harsken’s arms were pinned to his sides. Not quite defeated he continued to form flames from his finger-tips but with no way to fling them, those fires could do no damage.
The skulls had seemed almost oblivious to the battle that had been raging between the two humans, but now they turned towards Siar and howled out the rage they felt for having been deprived of their existence. The wise-woman stood firm as they grew and grew until finally, overcome by the crows, they fell apart.
It was only with the demons gone and Harsken restrained that Siar began to take stock. The fire in her hair had burned itself out, and although her robe still smouldered she was unharmed. Carawk had not been so lucky. He struggled on the ground in front of her, half of his feathers already burned away. His eyes met hers and begged her to swiftly end his suffering. With tears in her eyes, she took his life swiftly then looked around at all of the corvidae who had lost or were losing their lives.
Taken over by a rage fuelled by the waste of their lives, Siar stalked up towards Harsken who tried, but failed to flinch away from her. She slapped him hard, once, twice, three times, and then she kicked his legs out from underneath him.
“This time there will be no escape for you,” she said, as she pushed him back into the hole from which he had been released. Using the last of her energy, she brought forth stone after stone to fill in the gap, sealing it all with a blueness that would give off a gentle glow so long as the stones stayed in place.
Almost unendurably tired, the wise-woman set about burying the fallen crows. So many had lost their lives... could she not have ordered them better? As if sensing her thoughts one crow stalked towards her, hopped onto her shoulder and stretched out a wing that draped comfortingly around Siar’s head. The mental link between woman and crow formed, and Tallis, one of Carawk’s daughters, became her new familiar.
Siar needed to rest, yet there was one final task that she needed to see to first, Connecting with Tallis she gave permission for the corvidae army to disband, but first there was the matter of retribution. As the wise-woman closed her eyes, she thought she could faintly hear Vallon’s screams as the crows made certain that the traitor paid in full for all of the corvidae lives which had been lost because of his treachery.