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In the Court of the Crow King - Part 2

by quietfool 

Posted: 05 December 2008
Word Count: 8390
Summary: This is a continuation of my opening, but with the prologue incorporated as many of you suggested. I'm not quite happy with this yet, feel some of it needs to be judiciously edited, but trying to fill a later plot hole at the moment! I know it's quite long so feel free to 'skim' the middle bit as I've taken it up to the point where the ex-prologue appears.

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Jen slammed her bedroom door behind her and flung herself across her window seat. It just wasn't fair. Jen cooked and tidied and did her homework alone, like an adult. She went climbing and kayaking with the Guides, taking herself there and back on the bus like an adult. So why did she have to live with all these rules as if she was still a little child? It hadn't been this bad when Dad was alive.
Jen's fingers moved unconsciously to the heavy silver chain around her neck. "Dad," she whispered, "I've got to get out of here! Please help Mum understand."
She hunched up on the window seat and stared at the darkening sky. Her father had died a year ago. Missing him was a constant ache. All she had left of him was memories and the heavy pendant that never left her neck. He had always worn it. Until the last two weeks of his life. He had given it to her on the last day he spent at home, the last good memory Jen had.
Her dad handed her a thick brown jiffy bag. "Here."
Jen frowned. "What's this for?"
"Just a gift," her father smiled, "you don't have to open it now."
Jen shot him a wry grin and picked at the flap. Her dad laughed. "That's my girl, endlessly curious."
Jen ripped open the envelope and shook it into her palm. A shining round pendant on a silver chain slithered out. It was carved with the figure of a man bent into a storm, leaning on a stout staff. The man was staring straight out of the pendant at her, his face full of resolve. Unusually for such a pedant he carried no baby Jesus; instead a crow perched on each shoulder.
"It's your St Christopher," she said in a flat voice. "Why are you giving it away?"
"I don't need it any more," her father said sadly, "look after it for me, will you? Just be careful," he gave a dry chuckle, "wily St Chris will get you half way down the road before you've put your boots on, if he can." He shifted awkwardly, gripping her hand. "Now darling, stay awake. There are… dangers out there."
Jen frowned. "What do you mean?"
His face twisted. "It's complicated, Jen. You're too young…"
"I'm not," she countered stoutly, "I'm eleven already. You missed my birthday, remember?"
Her father flinched, and the guilt twisted Jen so badly that tears rolled unbidden down her cheeks. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I didn't mean -"
"I know, sweetie," he smiled, the sadness still behind his eyes, "Never mind all that. C'mere, give me a hug."
Jen climbed carefully up on the bed beside him and burrowed against his shoulder. She felt her father's thin jaw leaning on her head and his fingers stroking her hair. "Look," he said softly, "out the window."
A pair of jackdaws flirted in the leafless branches of a tree, hopping coyly towards each other then darting back with a flurry of excited flaps. "I've always liked corvids," he murmured, "you know, crows, magpies, jackdaws, ravens best of all. They're rare these days." He tilted Jen's head round to face him and stared into her eyes with his piercing, serious gaze. "Intelligent birds, resourceful. They can be mischievous, mind, but they're not so bad for all that. Remember that, Jen, whatever you hear. If you're stuck, a corvid has the answer and if you trust them, they'll help you."
His daughter smiled anxiously, squeezing her father's arm. The medicine confused him, sending his usually sharp and curious mind on strange, vague tangents. "I will, Dad." She kissed his cheek. "I'll send mum up, ok?" Her father smiled and lay back wearily, closing his eyes. "Alright love. Oh, Jen?
"Keep it safe."
Pressing the cold metal into her fingers, Jen slipped quietly out of the room, hearing her father's heavy breathing settle into the rhythm of sleep.
Jen's dad had been a travel writer, disappearing to remote locations all over the world at the ring of his phone. He'd reappear after three weeks with curious gifts from distant places and endless stories. The three of them would sit up late into the night hearing about his adventures then he would bundle Jen up in sleeping bags and they'd camp outside, where he'd point out the stars and teach her to identify different owls by their calls.
Nearly three years ago Dad had started going off his food then he backed out of a few jobs. He had a string of hospital appointments, her mother started chewing her fingernails. The trips abroad stopped altogether. Jen could see how much her father hated being cooped up in the house; his only escape became the stories he could tell her, of his travels and of his childhood with Grandpa on a rambling farm in Norway.
A year ago she had got home from school to find her mother sitting on the couch with a small glass in her hands, turning it round and round, and her father was gone. Sometimes Jen thought her mother had gone with him, to be replaced by a snappy, tired and skinnier copy. Her Mum was a writer too, but she worked on a women's magazine and was always busy. Somehow they didn't talk much since Dad had died. Jen twisted the pendant between her fingers. She wanted to call her grandfather, but what was he going to do? She scowled into the darkness. For that matter, what could she do? Jen curled up on the window seat, eyelids itching with tiredness, and slowly slipped into sleep.
The wind rose up from nowhere, stirring the heavy grey clouds that had hung unmoving over the town all evening. Suddenly it was raining with hard, icy drops that cracked against the windows. There was a low rumble of thunder and Jen woke with a start. She didn't remember falling asleep but her neck ached from lying awkwardly for so long and the clock by her bed blinked 11.30. The rain had not slowed, though. Jen knelt on the window seat and watched the raindrops flatten against the pane or send shivers through the leaves of the trees.
Her face was burning but she felt chilled inside, and her head was foggy with sleep. At this rate she was going to be useless in the morning! Jen opened the window slightly to let the air onto her hot cheeks. Muffled by the rainfall the street seemed strangely quiet but, as Jen pressed her face to the cold glass the howling noise from the pier began again, so loud that it seemed to be right outside the window. Jen shrank back from the window, her heart jumping in terror. She wanted to throw herself under the covers or run to her mother's room but something kept her frozen before the window. The rain flew in her face and made a wet arc on the carpet, it was so fierce that she couldn't see anything outside, couldn't make out where the horrible sound was coming from.
Suddenly the howling became a shriek and a shadow hurtled out of the storm, slamming against her window with a sickening crack! For a moment it hung there, perfectly still, then slid down the glass with a hollow squeak. It rocked on the frame, buffeted by the rain, then tumbled heavily off the edge. Forgetting her fright, Jen dived forwards and slipped her cupped hands underneath just in time.
She almost dropped it straight out of the window again; what was she doing? Then, as Jen stared in shock at the strange bundle she realised it was warm and soft. Despite being wet, messy and a bit on the smelly side, she found herself gently cradling it, her fingers probing and Jen realised with amazement that the softness was feathers, and the warmth that of a living creature. The bedraggled bundle that had slammed with such horrible force into her bedroom window was actually a bird. A very muddy, floppy bird, one wing sticking out awkwardly. Its quick heartbeat fluttering faintly in the palm of Jen's hand.
Jen took the bird from the storm and held the dripping body over her red carpet. She didn't know much about animals, but this one was clearly in bad shape - it hadn't moved since she had caught it, only that quivering heartbeat told her it was still alive. What did you do with sick birds? She fetched a clean towel from the wardrobe and wrapped it round her patient then put the bird gently on the floor by the radiator. She poured some water into a saucer and put it by the it's head, then sat on her bed and stared at it.
What should she do next? It looked so fragile, the fluttering of its tiny ribcage could stop any moment but it was late - her mother was asleep, and she didn't even know where the nearest vet was! Anxiously she stroked the bird's feathers, glossy and black, just like the one she had found on the cliff top when her grandfather had - that was it! Her grandfather would know what to do; he used to have lots of animals! She checked the clock; it blinked 11.45. Her mother left early for work, she would have been asleep for over an hour already.
Jen pulled on her clothes as fast as she could, fumbling the buttons as her eyes kept darting back to the damp towel bundle. She found a dusty shoebox under the wardrobe and stabbed a few holes in the lid with a biro then placed the bird gently inside - did it move? Stretching her coat over the shoebox, she slipped downstairs and out the back door, locking it behind her. The rain on the windows covered the sound of her footsteps and the door - with any luck, her mother wouldn't even know she had gone out.
Her grandfather lived in a winding street of old fishermen's cottages. Most were converted into bed and breakfasts with notices tucked in front of the lace curtains, painted a sweet box of pastel colours. His house, on the other hand, hadn't seen a paint brush in ages. The whitewash was peeling off like curls of ribbon, and Jen had to lift the front door to stop it sticking on the flagstones. On sunny days it was so close, but tonight with the icy rain in her face and the spine-chilling moan of the wind, in the dark, it seemed a horrifying journey. Jen looked down at the cardboard box. No big deal. The whole town had been asleep for hours, there was nothing to worry about.
Taking a deep breath, Jen stepped out from the shelter of her garden wall and the wind rose up as if it had been waiting for her. Clutching the box so tightly she put fingerprints in the cardboard and crushed its corners she leaned into the growing gale and started to walk. Something loomed out of a shadowy alleyway and nearly made her run for home, but it was only a dustbin. When the wind lulled for a moment she was sure she heard footsteps over her shoulder, but there was nobody there. Checking behind her every few moments, she broke into an awkward run. The darkness gathered around her and, like in a nightmare, her feet weighed her down like blocks of ice that any minute would freeze to the spot. Even in the icy downpour her forehead was sticky with sweat.
Caught up in her fear, Jen didn't notice the cats. But as she turned into her grandfather's street all of a sudden the wind dropped away completely, and she realised the howling wasn't just the wind - it was the calling of hundreds of cats, lining every rooftop, wall and fencepost. They stood absolutely still, their tiny chins raised in blood curdling song. It was the sound from the pier that afternoon, a hundred times greater and more terrifying. Cats were playful, cuddly creatures normally, but these ones looked dangerous, like caged lions. The howling stopped, and every yellow eye turned to stare straight at her.
Jen could just make out the fence to her grandfather's garden. Suddenly convinced she was in terrible danger, but with no idea why, she ran. The cats ran too - along the rooftops, streaming on silent paws beside her, and all Jen could think of was the needle sharp claws velveted in every soft pad. A scratch from one bad tempered cat was one thing, but from thousands? Imagining wicked claws raking her back she tore past the last guesthouse to her grandfather's door, the cats like a dark fog behind her. She fumbled the key, nearly dropping it. Claws scratched at the gate. She hauled the front door open just wide enough to slip inside and slam it behind her, but the cats kept coming until they were pressed to the door and crowding along the window sills. Jen cried out then, and stepped backwards into warm arms.
"Jen? What on earth? Look at the state of you - what's wrong?"
"The cats…look…"
Shaking in his arms, Jen pointed to the door but the cats had melted away. Not one remained.
"But I promise - they were all there, just a moment ago…"
Her grandfather shook his head. "Come and sit down. It's alright, you're safe. One o'clock in the morning, goodness me!"

* * *

"Where did you find it?"
Her grandfather placed the box in front of the fire and pulled his chair closer. Gingerly he lifted the bird out and cupped it in his huge hands. Jen crouched beside him.
"Is it…?"
"No, it's alive. Poor thing's taken quite a battering though."
"It hit my window, in the storm. I didn't know what to do! What's wrong with it?"
"Mainly shock I think, one wing is damaged but not too badly, I should be able to fix it up. Looks like an animal might have had it."
Jen gulped. "A cat?"
"Maybe, although with these injuries I'm amazed it managed to fly away. Birds don't escape cats easily you know, although this is a magpie, and they're quite tough, bossy characters," he winked, "a bit like someone else I know! Look darling, the best thing we can do is warm it up and let it rest in the quiet, if the shock doesn't kill it then maybe it will get better." The magpie crouched in his palms, leaning awkwardly to one side. A milky third eyelid hid its glossy black eyes; it didn't look good at all.
Her grandfather cleared his throat. "I'm guessing your Mum doesn't know you're here, huh?"
Jen winced. "Not exactly..."
"Thought not. Oh dear m'girl, how are we going to sort things out between you if you start acting like a tearaway?" Jen began to protest but he waved it away. "Too late now. Do you want to stay here tonight?"
Jen nodded, thinking about the dark and the cats.
"That's fine, I'll phone your mother in the morning, probably best not to worry her now if she's asleep," he said with a smile, smoothing the magpie's feathers straight and lowering it back into the box. "Why don't you go upstairs. I'll stay and keep an eye on the bird for a while, ok?"
With a last glance at her strange find, Jen climbed the stairs. The shock of the cat attack faded into sudden weariness; she could hardly keep her eyes open long enough to crawl into bed. Her dad would have loved this, she thought sleepily, finding a magpie. He would have been fascinated by it.
Pale sunlight slipped between the thin curtains and danced on Jen's face. She opened her eyes slowly and lay there frowning muggily, why was she in her grandfather's spare room? Then the storm and the cats came back to her and she tried to jump out of bed but her legs were still tangled in the blankets and she landed in a crumpled heap on the floor. The house was so quiet that the little clock on the dressing table shocked her with every tick. It was only six thirty in the morning. Jen tiptoed into the hallway. She could hear her grandfather's deep breathing from the room next door.
Downstairs the heavy red curtains cast the sitting room in a dull pink light. The box with the magpie in it was sat in front of the cold fire. Jen stared at it for a moment then edged closer, nudging the box with her toe. It didn't move. Glancing up the stairs Jen crouched down and prised the lid ajar. With a screech the magpie flew out of the box, crashed into a bookcase and bounced on the carpet. Jen tried to grab it but the bird darted to one side and lurched drunkenly back into the air, zigzagging across the sitting room and into the kitchen. "Oh God," Jen moaned, chasing after it.
The kitchen was empty but the window over the sink flapped open on its hook. Grumbling under her breath Jen fumbled for the back door key. How could she be so stupid? She knew nothing about handling animals, she should have waited for her grandfather. He would be furious. It could have torn its wing to bits by now or, the thought shot through her like a bullet of ice, what if the cats were waiting outside, what if they had already caught it?
The key turned suddenly and Jen stumbled into the garden. The magpie was standing in the middle of the lawn, watching her with one bright eye, its head on one side. Its beak was open and it was panting with exhaustion, showing a pointed yellow tongue. Jen took a slow step towards the bird and it didn't move. Spreading her arms wide she bent down and reached forwards but just as her hands drew near the magpie hopped backwards, just out of reach. It glanced sideways, and Jen saw that another magpie sat on the shed roof, staring down at her.
"Oh c'mon," she groaned, "I'm trying to help you!"
The bird bobbed its head and ruffled its wings, as if it was laughing at her. Twice more Jen edged closer, and twice more the magpie waited until the very last minute before hopping beyond her grasp. Jen bit her lip. Well, if patience wasn't going to work...she made a wild grab for the bird but it launched itself haphazardly towards its friend on the shed roof. Jen dived after it but missed, feeling a feather whisper between the tips of her fingers. Her dive startled both birds to flight but her touch seemed to have unbalanced the injured magpie because it lurched in the air and both birds dropped down behind the shed.
Guilt eating at her, Jen ran round the side of the shed. There was only a dark corner between the shed and the garden fence, a shadowy space littered with empty plant pots and half filled sacks of compost, but no sign of the bird. Jen eased herself past a roll of wire fencing and dragged aside a bundle of seed trays. In the darkest corner something moved. If she could just shift that sack...
A shape rose up out of the darkness and loomed over her. Jen jumped backwards but caught her foot in the roll of fencing and tumbled into the light of the garden. For a moment nothing happened, then the shape detached itself from the shadows and came after her.
It was a man, taller than anyone she had ever seen but thin and dirty, dressed in black. He wore a strange baggy shirt with ties instead of buttons and loose trousers ballooning into high boots, with a cloak swung back over his shoulders. They might have been nice once, but they were tattered rags now and the cloak, which shifted from inky blue to bottle green in the light, was fraying at the bottom and caked in mud. He took a few light steps towards her, his bright eyes darting backwards and forwards like a bird. Jen tried to shout, but a throaty gurgle was the only sound that came out. She kicked her foot until it came loose from the roll of fencing but that didn't help much; she still couldn't persuade her legs to work and instead of running up the garden she managed a sort of backwards crawl. The tramp stumbled after her as if he couldn't remember how his legs worked either. Of course, he was just a drunk, he had nothing to do with the bird, or the cats, or the strange wind! He must have been hiding out in Grandpa's garden, which was definitely not on, but he probably wouldn't hurt her, either. That thought was enough to strengthen Jen's legs and she scrambled to her feet and, with what she hoped was a calming smile, she strode as quickly as she could for the back door. Two more steps, and she could lock him out, call her grandfather, and that would be that.
She was reaching for the door handle when the tramp spoke in a clear voice that froze her to the spot.
"Jen." His voice was rich as an orchestra. "That's your name, isn't it?"
She couldn't move. She knew she should have been throwing herself through the door but somehow she felt bound to listen.
"Jen," he said again, "I've been looking for you. I need your help."
Jen was suddenly furious. This was just all too strange! "Get back," she shouted, "leave me alone, I'll call the police!"
The tramp held out his arms, "No no, calm down! I'm not going to hurt you." Grey eyes, far younger than the creased face that carried them, stared at her pleadingly through dirty strands of hair. "I need your help. Listen to me…I knew your father. We were good friends, he'd always help if I was in a bind. He told me all about you -"
"You're lying. You could've read about Dad in the newspapers, or picked my name up from an old envelope. I know about identity theft, twisted people like you going through our rubbish."
The tramp looked confused. "Identity - wait, you think I'm some kind of thief? I don't want to steal anything, I just need your help." He pawed at the tattered neck of his shirt, "look, I can prove it -"
His thin fingers gripped something beneath his shirt and pulled it free. For a moment Jen stood open mouthed, staring at the dull St Christopher on the tramp's open palm. It was identical to the one her father had given her, down to the birds on his shoulders. As if on cue, a magpie rose from behind the shed and flew straight towards them, landing easily on the tramp's shoulder.
Could this really be happening? For a horrible moment Jen thought he must have stolen her own pendant, she brushed anxiously at her neck but the smooth disc of metal was still there. The tramp smiled knowingly. "I could hardly have pinched it, could I? You never take it off."
"What?" Jen gulped. "How did you know…where did you get it?"
"They're...a pair. I had them made, your father's was a gift."
He had definitely hesitated. He was lying to her, Jen was sure of it! "He got it in Norway, he told me." Sense returned to her numb legs, and Jen backed away until she could feel the door handle digging into her back. The tramp watched her with a strange and sad expression on his crinkled face, but made no move to stop her.
"Look, I don't know who you are, or if you knew Dad or not, or what you want with me, but I'm going inside now and in five minutes when I look out the window you've gotta be gone, ok? Or I really will call the police."
He turned to the shed. "As you wish," he said, hunching his shoulders. Jen turned towards the door, her heart hammering between her ribs in relief. As she pulled the door safely closed behind she heard the tramp call over his shoulder, "I nearly forgot to thank you, by the way."
"For what?"
"Keeping me safe from those abhorrent felines, for one thing."
She should have carried on inside, ignored the bait, but there was something in his voice that made Jen turn back to the garden. The tramp raised an eyebrow and shrugged his tatty black shirt off one shoulder then wriggled free a thin white arm. Jen forgot about the kitchen door and the police, even about the St Christopher. From his collarbone to his elbow ran an open wound, the ragged flaps of skin tinged purple. Sticking out between the torn skin was a row of hollow black stumps, about as thick as her little finger, with soft wisps sticking to them. A steady trickle of blood ran down his arm, and Jen realised for the first time that his pale, shaky look was due to a nasty injury, not craziness. The bird on his shoulder ruffled its feathers; it appeared unharmed. The tramp pinched one of the stumps between forefinger and thumb and, wincing, yanked it out with one sharp tug and held it up. Jen recognised it instantly. With shaking fingers she took the broken stump of feather from his hand and stared at it. It was identical to the black feather in her pocked, but bigger than any feather she had ever seen. The tramp looked at her sideways, and if there was any doubt left in her mind that birdlike gesture dispelled it. "I was looking for you," he said softly, "but those beasts found me first. Even in this world I have some skills and I got away, reaching your window by the barest of chances. They rarely lose a scent though, cats. They tracked me to you, and they followed us here."
Jen shook her head, "what do you mean, this world?"
"I'm not from around here," the tramp stroked the feather stumps in his arm like harp strings, "but I think you guessed that already. Look Jen, I really do need your help, and I can see it's not going to be easy to get your trust, but it's not safe out here. The cats could be anywhere and I can't fight them like this," he gestured with irritation to his torn arm, "besides, they are not my only enemies."
Jen shivered involuntarily, remembering the yellow eyes in the darkness, and the vicious howling. "What do you want?"
"Shelter, once more, and some clean water and tweezers to get these stumps out," he grimaced, "It won't heal until that's done."
"But you can't come in the house, Grandpa will be downstairs any moment," Jen said, "Unless…" she stuttered, "if you really were the bird, can you be him again?"
The tramp grinned, "I guess you won't settle for faith, then?"
Jen folded her arms, "you said you wanted my trust. I've got to start believing all this, first."
The tramp gave a mocking little bow. "That'll limit our conversation for a time, however. So before I go, I ought to introduce myself. My name is Corvus."
Jen raised an eyebrow, "Funny kind of name - Latin for Crow, isn't it? I'm not stupid. C'mon, what's your real name?"
The tramp grinned ruefully. "I should've known your father would have taught you things like that," he said, "in fact, that's the name he gave me, and I happen to like it."
The name her father gave him - Jen shivered. The feeling that this crazy tramp was telling her the truth was getting stronger and stronger. More and more questions were bubbling up inside her. How had her father known a man like this?
Corvus touched her arm. His fingers were cold. "Jen," he said softly, "I promise I'll explain what I can, whether you decide to help me or not. That's all I can do."
"So why didn't you show me who you really are sooner?"
"I didn't want to disturb your grandfather," Corvus said seriously, "what I have to say is for you, and you alone. His first instinct would be for your protection, quite rightly so. He wouldn't listen to me."
Jen nodded helplessly. She shouldn't be listening to him either. "What about your...friend?"
Corvus looked at the magpie on his shoulder. "Oh, Jasper will wait out here. He is not at risk." The magpie nipped Corvus' ear then took off in a flurry of feathers, landing back on the shed roof where he stared down at them.
Corvus stretched out his arms, and before Jen could do anything there was a ringing in her ears and the air shimmered around him, for a moment a huge soft shadow hung in the air then it shrunk inwards and there was only a magpie sitting awkwardly on the grass, one wing dragging and its head tilted rakishly to one side. The magpie on the shed roof gave a harsh, laughing squawk then flew off towards a distant clump of trees.
Dazed, Jen knelt down and held out her arm. The magpie hopped onto her wrist, gripping with its dull grey claws as Jen walked slowly inside. The sitting room was just as she had left it, a scattering of crushed feathers on the carpet and the cardboard box overturned with hay spilling out. Quickly Jen scooped the hay back and lowered her arm inside; the magpie jumped off obediently and watched as she collected up the feathers and dropped them into the box as well. "This is crazy," she muttered, "look, I've got school, but Grandpa goes to the allotment on Monday afternoons. Once he's left I'll sneak back and we'll fix you up. Just…behave until then, ok?"
The bird bobbed its head at her and shuffled down in the straw, a picture of innocence.
"Excuse me for not being convinced," Jen whispered, tucking the flaps of the box together securely. "Stay here, I'll see you later."
Her grandfather's footsteps thumped down the stairs.
"Up already lass? How's the patient?"
Jen swung round. "Better, I think. He's looking quite bright and standing up, it's just that wing."
"Well, I'll take a look at it after breakfast."
Jen stared at the box for a long time before she could drag herself away to get ready for school. She tried to be cheerful, to act as if everything was normal but there was a sick weight inside her that wouldn't go away. What should she do?
The volvo coughed and died for the third time and Jen groaned silently. Her grandfather got out of the car, hooked up the bonnet and peered inside, fiddled aimlessly with something Jen couldn't see for the third time, then slammed it shut and climbed back into the drivers seat. How could anyone move so slowly! It turned out there weren't many good hiding places on Grandpa's street so she had finally screwed herself up inside a bush opposite the house. Her legs had fallen asleep ages ago and she was trying not to think of the itching where various insects had come to greet her. She squeezed her pendant. How did Corvus -
Don't think about him, she told herself for the hundredth time that morning. Getting ready for school had been nearly impossible, pretending everything was normal and trying not to stare at the box in front of the fire as if it was about to explode. She had nearly thrown it out the window more than once, but every time something stopped her. He knew about her father and he had a pendant just like hers. She had to know what this was about.
With a wet roar the volvo exploded into life, spewing thick smoke from its exhaust. Jen gritted her teeth as the bush filled with it, holding her breath as the car chugged up the road. Only when it was out of sight and the street was empty did she fall, coughing and gasping for breath, onto the pavement. She let herself in the back gate and checked under the pots until she uncovered a key for the kitchen door, covered in slug slime. The box sat where she had left it. She unhooked the lid with one finger. The magpie stared up at her, unafraid. Perhaps she was going mad, perhaps she had imagined the whole thing, or this was still a dream. She pinched her arm, but it just hurt.
"Corvus?" Jen tried to speak, but an empty squeak of air was all that came out. She cleared her throat and tried again.
The magpie hopped easily out of the box, still dragging its wing. Once it was clear of the fireplace it shivered - no, it was more that the air around it shivered, for a moment Jen felt almost seasick, and the small bird shifted into the man again, crouched on the rug and cradling his left arm.
"Thank you for coming back, Jen."
Jen got up quickly. "This doesn't mean I trust you," she said, "just that I'll help with your arm."
Corvus struggled to his feet. His ragged clothes looked more blue than black, he wore a long hooded cloak with a deep split up the back and loose layers beneath it, cinched in with braids of rope and leather. A broad silver cuff she had not noticed before hung loose on his left wrist and his trousers bagged out over long black boots with soft soles. More like a pirate than a tramp, Jen thought as she took him through to the kitchen. She dragged some towels from the airing cupboard and filled a basin with hot water. Corvus eased his arm free of his clothes, it was more swollen now and the black stumps stuck out painfully between puffy ridges of torn flesh. Seeing Jen pale Corvus gave her a wry grin, "it doesn't look so bad on a bird, does it? Magnifying such things is an unpleasant process. The good news is I heal...rather quickly. If you can pull out the feathers, everything else will sort itself out."
Jen rifled through her grandfather's toolbox under the kitchen sink until she found a small pair of pliers. Corvus braced his arm against the table while Jen gripped the first stump, just above his elbow, between the blunt metal jaws and pulled it steadily upwards. It came suddenly, knocking her backwards. Grinning, Jen pulled the feather free from the pliers but before she could drop it into the sink it quivered in her fingers and in a moment had faded completely into the air.
"It doesn't belong here," Corvus said quietly, "it is part of the bird form, a spell which is sleeping, now."
"So by sorting your arm out we'll help with the magpie's wing?"
Corvus flashed her a sardonic smile. "Catching on fast, aren't you?"
Jen flushed, yanking at the next feather with extra force. "How do I know? I still don't know why you're here, or what you want with me."
Corvus sighed. "Finish this, then we'll talk."


Hours later, Corvus sat cross legged on the rug in front of the fireplace. After they had cleaned up the wound he had banished Jen from the bathroom; when he emerged an hour later she had hardly recognized him. He hair fell damp and clean around his face and his clothes no longer hung in creased tatters. At first Jen thought he looked younger than she had imagined, but there was something ageless in his strange black eyes. He had gone outside for a moment and returned with the other magpie, Jasper, riding on his shoulder. Now it sat on the back of a chair, watching her intently.
Corvus ran his fingers down his injured arm. "That's much better. Thank you, Jen."
Jen nodded. "Maybe now you can tell me who you really are, why you were looking for me in the first place, and what exactly you know about my father?"
"Not easily distracted," he laughed, "another family trait." Jen frowned, but Corvus raised a hand. "No, you are within your rights. I promised you answers, and what I can give, I will give." He stared at her proudly, and Jen wondered for a moment how she could think he was a tramp. "I am the Crow King," he said quietly, "Lord by blood of the Otherworld, my home and your heritage, Jen. I am the last of the Aos Si, one of the two ancient races of my land."
He held up one hand. "I will answer your questions, Jen, but I will not explain my answers. You will only understand when you see for yourself."
Jen shook her head in astonishment. What did that mean? Before she could say anything else Corvus continued.
"I came to find you because the pendant you wear around your neck led me to you. It is bound to the one I wear, so the owners can always find each other. When the pendant passed to you, that bond went with it. I came looking for your father, but the moment I saw you I knew what had happened."
"He died," Jen said flatly, "a year ago." Corvus nodded, his eyes tight.
"I knew he was ill. That is why I have left it so long before coming, I did not want to disturb the choice he made. But I could not wait any longer, it seems I have already left things too late."
Jen shook her head. "I still don't understand. How did you know my father? What choice did he make?"
Corvus stared at her, his black eyes unreadable.
"There is the world you know, Jen, and there is a world you have only seen in stories and in dreams. Yet that world is as real as this one and they feed off each other. Yours has strength in science and logic, making things work, and my world, the Otherworld, operates by the laws of magic and myth. The worlds turn within each other, their influence unseen except by a few. Now something is happening in the Otherworld that might endager your world as well, and I, and your father, are in some measure responsible for it."
Jen stared at him. Perhaps he was crazy, after all. "That's insane! There's no such thing as another world, and don't you dare blame my father for anything! I don't even know you!"
Corvus held up his hands. "This is too complicated to explain here and now. Just listen for a moment. The Otherworld does exist, I promise you. As for where your family and mine come into it... Many generations ago, someone of great intelligence and power in the Otherworld discovered almost by accident a weak spot between the worlds, a point where you could shift between them, if you knew how. He found his way to this world and spent his life studying the worlds in parallel. He realised the danger of allowing the worlds to mingle, and dedicated himself to preventing that from happening. To ensure this protection would endure, he imbued the skills he had learned into his own blood, so all his descendants would have the ability to shift between worlds. He...spread his bloodline between the worlds, giving protection on both sides. His name was Bran," Corvus grinned, "known in your world as Bran the Blessed. Your father was of his bloodline, as am I."
Jen shook her head in disbelief. "Bran was just a legend! Dad took me to London once, we visited the tower of London and its ravens. He told me how the head of Bran the Blessed was supposed to be buried beneath the tower and as long as the ravens stayed there, it would protect the land from invaders, you could have read about that in any travel guide! It doesn't say anything about other worlds!"
"Bran means Crow, in welsh," Corvus said softly, "or raven. Just as the ravens guard the Tower, so do Bran's descendants guard the two worlds. There were many of us once, serving in the Court of the Crow King."
Jen shivered. It sounded strange, and serious. "But my father-"
"Your father served the Court," Corvus said quietly.
"This is crazy," Jen stood up suddenly, a painful pounding in her ears. "My Dad was a travel writer. He lived here, with us. You-"
Corvus got to his feet, his black eyes suddenly angry. "I cannot tell the truth if you will not listen, child. I am not used to being shouted at." His voice was dangerously quiet and Jen clamped her mouth shut. "The Otherworld is threatened! Ice descends from the North, and the seas rise. Shadows hunt in the forests, villages burn, families have disappeared, people turn against each other. The Court still stands, but it is dangerously weakened and nobody belives in it anymore. I sought your father's help, for he was a powerful member of the Court, and had...a debt to repay. The power, and the debt, have passed to you now. I am the Crow King, the strongest descendant of Bran. I will not," his eyes blazed, "see the Court, or the Otherworld, fall!"
Jen pressed herself against the wall, her legs shaking. The fire dimmed in the Crow King's eyes. "Forgive me," he said hoarsely, "I ask too much, in too little time." He sank back to the floor, his head bowed.
There was a long silence. "You should leave," Jen said eventually. "Grandpa will be back soon." Her stomach curled in knots. She didn't want to hear anymore, she just wanted him gone, so she could begin to forget all the madness he had been spouting. His words whirled round her head. The Otherworld is threatened...
"I will go, if you wish it." Corvus gathered his coat around him. "If you change your mind, the way is open to you. I will not put you in danger, however great the need. I know I have unsettled you. You can come for answers and leave untouched, if you wish it." He pulled something from his pocket and held it out to her.
Jen backed away from his outstretched hand. "I don't want it," she said. Corvus hesitated, then put it on the rug. It was a small, battered glass bottle. "Payment," he said briefly, "if you need it. Find Marnie, she will show you the way, the first time."
"I don't know who you are," Jen said quickly, "but I don't believe a word you've said to me and I want you to leave, right now. I should have called the police first thing this morning. Get out."

* * *

Corvus' eyes flashed and Jen shrank back, but his anger was gone as quickly as it had come. Jasper croaked and flapped his wings, tilting his head mockingly towards her. Corvus stared at her for a moment then got awkwardly to his feet, holding his injured arm rigid. He bowed to her with a strange solemnity, and turned to the kitchen door.
"The front door's this way," Jen said. Corvus shot her an amused glance, but there was sadness in his eyes. "It makes no difference to me," he said, "and this way I will not be observed. Come."
Not knowing why, Jen followed him into the garden. It was already getting dark. Corvus walked down to the shed and stopped a metre from the fence. His eyes shone in the twilight. "Are you sure, Jen? Sure you can turn away from this so easily?"
Jen bit her lip, forcing herself to stay silent.
Corvus tugged the pendant from beneath his shirt and held it up so it caught the light from the house. "This is a bond between us," he said firmly, "If you enter the Otherworld, I will know of it. I promise I will be there to meet you. I hope you change your mind."
He crouched down and spread his fingers wide in the grass. For a moment nothing changed then Jen realised the air seemed to be flowing differently around his arms, bending as if it was solid. His hands seemed to be sinking into the ground. She stepped forwards, and the Crow King glanced back at her, one fierce, proud look. "Be careful," he said.
The shimmering spread and Corvus turned away. Suddenly Jasper gave a croak of warning and flew from the fence to Corvus' chest. At that moment Jen heard the back door open and her grandfather calling her name. The empty dark to their left seemed to rip open and through it leapt a deeper darkness, vast and furious. Jen cried out in terror and the Crow King staggered backwards as the shadow slammed into him, cradling the magpie protectively with one hand and fumbling under his coat with the other. Jen couldn't move. Between them crouched a hideous beast, a gigantic tusked boar made of shadows and rippling darkness, covered in viciously sharp bristly hair with wide curving claws for feet. From between the bristles seeped a black and stinking slime. The shadow boar's muscles bunched to pounce but it seemed unsure who to attack, swinging its ugly head back and forth from Corvus to Jen. Its breath smelt rotten and sickly. Slowly it turned towards her, ignoring the Crow King. Fear shot down her spine. Jen had to clench her teeth together to stop herself retching but forgot it when she heard the worst sound in the world - her grandfather's hurried footsteps coming towards them.
"What in the name of -"
"Run, Grandpa!" Jen screamed, her heart clenched in fear for him, but then everything happened at once. The boar exploded through the air straight at Jen, but her grandfather flung himself desperately in front of her. The creature pounded his chest with its massive clawed feet and knocked him to the ground with a single blow. He lay horribly still. The creature rounded on Jen, its sunken eyes fixed on her. Jen was frozen to the spot in terror, how could she fight this? She noticed absently that all around them the cats were gathered, lining the fence and spilling out of the bushes, watching with vicious eyes. It looked like at any moment they would swarm into the fight, and Jen didn't think they would be on her side. The beast snarled and took one light step towards her, and Jen felt her heart stutter. But then Corvus was there. With a wild cry the Crow King launched himself at the creature, flinging one arm round its massive neck and reaching down with the other to clutch the ground. The beast clawed at him, for an instant Corvus' bright eyes flashed at Jen then the beast and the Crow King, grappling desperately, vanished.

The cats melted into the night, and the garden was silent. Jen knelt in the rain, cradling her grandfather's bald head in her arms. The back garden was so dark she could hardly see the fence but she knew that somewhere in the darkness, maybe on top of the shed or crouched behind the inky stain of those dripping bushes, they were watching her and waiting to see what she would do. Clutching her mobile phone in a white fist, Jen waited for the ambulance to arrive.
A babble of urgent voices broke the stillness as the back door was thrown open. Jen's mother, her face tight with worry, led a team of yellow-coated paramedics down the path. The beam of a bright torch swept over the garden - Jen was sure she heard the scurrying of claws as light flashed over the bushes but nothing appeared.
Strong hands landed on her shoulders, firmly pulling her away. Her grandfather made a horrible gurgling noise, his eyes rolling wildly. It made Jen feel sick - this wasn't how Grandpa was supposed to be! The paramedic pushed her into her mother's arms and they held each other stiffly, not quite remembering how. The medics talked quietly to her mother as they slid a board under the old man and strapped him down with a thin blanket over him; with his gardening overalls covered he looked even less familiar. They followed the trolley out to the ambulance, Jen and her mother got into Grandpa's rusty Volvo and drove after the wailing ambulance towards the hospital. It was so quiet in the car Jen could hear her mother grinding her teeth.
"What happened?"
Jen didn't look at her. How could she answer that? She didn't really understand herself. As for what she thought had happened, well, she knew her mother would never believe it.
"I don't know," she stuttered, hoping her mother would not get suspicious. "Grandpa went out to shut the chickens away. I was in the sitting room. He didn't come back so I went outside - I found him… I called 999, I called you." She left it hanging, the shock of the moment flooding over her. "Is he -"
"We won't know for a while," her mother sighed wearily. "You did the right thing, getting the ambulance there so quickly will give him the best chance…"
Something wriggled nastily inside Jen. 'The best chance' didn't sound good at all. He couldn't die! Not when… She forced herself to admit it, even just in her head. Not when it was Jen's fault this had happened. All her fault. Jamming her hands deep into her coat pocket she found a damp feather and twisted it angrily in her fingers. It felt strangely alive, prickling with static. She had picked that feather up just the previous day, before Corvus had turned her world upside down. Before a stupid mistake had landed her Grandfather on the wet grass, attacked by some creature from her nightmares. Jen squeezed her eyes shut as the car swung into the carpark with an acrid whiff of rubber.

"Let's go and find him."

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Comments by other Members

Ellie C at 14:54 on 05 December 2008  Report this post
I have to say that I really like your writing style. It is easy to read and moves me forward effortlessly. Your confident writing makes Jen jump off the page and become real.

Well done.

Issy at 18:03 on 05 December 2008  Report this post
Well, I just read on and on, forgetting I was supposed to be reading critically, and it was good to have a long piece of quality writing to really get into.

This is accomplished writing, and like Ellie says, Jen is captivating, I was there with her, through all her anguish, memories and caring, totally on her side.

The build up to the discovery of Corvus is tense, and the word and sentence structure is seamless and exactly right.

I kept thinking of David Almond's "Skellig", not a bad comparison!

For some reason which I can't quite put a finger on, I was just a little disappointed with Corvus's explanation, but it didn't stop me reading on avidly. Perhaps it was because the "otherworld" seems so strange, and so far hasn't so much meaning as Jen's own life, the loss of her father, the distance to her mother, her deep caring for her grandfather. I haven't yet "learnt" to care about Corvus's world but am keeping open about that as the writing, and hte interest in Jen is so very good.

The prologue fits brilliantly in here, so superbly written, it leaves this section with so many tensions, unanswered questions and with Jen back in the "real world" with her grandfather's suffering.

I particularly liked the cats (this time made me think of Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds" again no bad thing, birds in reverse!) the animal kingdom's wildness was captured beautifully and struck a chord, because a cat can look like that, so many cats staring can easily be understood to be scary.

I also liked that Jen is not open to the approach from a strange man - a difficult situation to handle in a novel for this age group, but handled well: it informs the reader what they should do if approached - seek refuge indoors, call the police. The reader will quickly move to the supernatural elements knowing at a different level that this is not "real" behaviour.

A clever touch that Corvus loses his temper at the point at which Jen is most confused about what she should do.

Looking forward to the next. I personally don't mind a longish piece of this standard.

NMott at 11:11 on 06 December 2008  Report this post
A great read.
One typo - 'Pocked' which probably should have been 'Pocket', otherwise, fine.

- NaomiM

Account Closed at 19:22 on 06 December 2008  Report this post
Fabulous storytelling - so good, in fact, that it almost cancels out the need for good writing, but you have that too.

I got caught up and intrigued to know more about these supernatural characters and the world they come from. I wanted to know what her father's connection with the Crow King was, and I'm curious about her father's death. How did it happen? Was it related to his friendship with the Crow King?

I'd have to buy the book. Keep going!


MF at 16:15 on 07 December 2008  Report this post
Very good writing, although next time you might like to post individual sections - 8,000 words was too much for me to attempt a close read in one sitting!

I, too found the first scene with the tramp very compelling - it reminded me just slightly of Sally Nicholls' Green Man - but the second encounter didn't leap off the page for me in quite the same way. I must admit, I switched off a bit at the descriptions of the other world, simply as it felt as if we'd been here before...but then, that may simply be a question of personal taste.

The scenes describing the cats and, later, with the grandfather were both very effective: highly visual writing.

Looking forward to more.

clyroroberts at 17:27 on 08 December 2008  Report this post
I like this too. Good pace and the characters are interesting.

Some of the sentences, for me, need compressing or clarifying:

"I'm not," she countered stoutly, "I'm eleven already. You missed my birthday, remember?"

It doesn't need "stoutly". The fact that he's missed her birthday is all the reader needs.

"A shining round pendant on a silver chain slithered out. It was carved with the figure of a man bent into a storm, leaning on a stout staff. The man was staring straight out of the pendant at her, his face full of resolve."

Stout staff . . . face full of resolve. I don't think you need those details personally. The crow on the shoulder, the man bending into a storm is enough for me. The extra details detract from the power of the symbol.

That kind of thing.

But these are things that come out naturally in further drafts. Overall, it's very good writing.

Emily Lockhart at 19:02 on 08 December 2008  Report this post
This was really excellent. When I saw the length of it I just intended to read the first bit, but found that I just couldn't stop! Jen is an instantly likeable character; the reader feels great empathy for her loss, her fear was genuine and believable and I really liked the flashes of feistiness! I especially liked the character of Corvus and found him dangerously attractive - I'm not sure how old Jen is meant to be, but that's something I got from it anyway. Just two little nitpicking things I'd like to say to you - first, it was 11.45 when Jen left her mother's house, but when she arrived at her grandfather's house he said it was 'one in the morning' - is this right? Secondly, and it's just a minor point also, I found it a bit strange to think of seeing a bird "panting with exhaustion, showing a pointed yellow tongue"; it's just not the kind of image one would associate with a bird and I didn't really think it worked, but maybe that's just me! On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I can't wait to read more; if you continue to develop it like this, I really see the possibility of success for you in the future! Emily

SusieL at 20:30 on 13 December 2008  Report this post
Hi, this is so good. Like the others I was caught up by the pace of the story. Your characters are well realised, yet intriguing, I want to read more! One small point, you first mention that Corvus has grey eyes, then they become black. Not sure if this is part of his transformation, or not? Otherwise very, very good.

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