Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 7

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

The dawn star was beginning to fade by the time Cate reached the main road. Her plan of keeping off the road and following the edge of the fields meant it would be extremely difficult for anyone to track her, but more than once she had needed to dive into a hedge to avoid being seen by early-rising farmers.They were more concerned with their cows or their seed sacks, and she had never had to hide for long. Now that she had reached her first goal, however, she eagerly set her stool down by the side of the road and began pulling leaves and twigs from inside her clothes.

As yet, the road was deserted. It glittered like a silver ribbon in the dim pre-dawn light, stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction, before winding up into the hills to the west or disappearing into the forests of the east. Safe at home, the road had seemed like an obvious goal to Cate, but now she was here she realised, she had no idea which direction she should take. They both looked equally full of potential, and she suddenly realised she could spend years searching without ever hearing news of her brothers.

Slowly, she became aware of a jangling of horse harnesses and loud, laughing conversation. In the distance, she could just make out a group of five men riding slowly down the road towards her. Cate strained her ears, trying to catch snatches of their conversation. Then she blushed. Through the chill early morning air she had clearly heard the punchline of a joke, and it was not one which gave her confidence. The group were obviously drinking as they rode, passing a wineskin from rider to rider. That decided her. She had seen enough customers staggering out of the village inn to realise that drunk men were usually best avoided.

Keeping low, Cate swiftly pulled her stool back into a stand of trees beside the road where she could observe without being seen. The men had not noticed her, and before long, they had passed the spot where she was hiding. Cate breathed a sigh of relief, but at the same time she was worried. There were still no other travellers on the road, and her plan depended on getting information and even a lift from passing traffic. Every hour that passed only made it more likely that searchers from the village would find her. There wasn't much she could do about it, though. She did her best to make herself look tidy and settled down to wait.

It was well past dawn when she was woken by the song of her wren. The little bird was perched on a branch high above her. Cate jumped to her feet, angry with herself for drowsing off. How many opportunities had she wasted? She must have been soundly asleep, because her head had tilted to rest against the trunk of the tree beside her, and her cheek was stippled with the pattern of the bark.

"Thank you, little wren," she called softly, receiving a sweet chortle in reply.

The road was busy now, with horses and carts passing rapidly in both directions. Most were moving way to fast for Cate to even consider trying to approach them. Just as she was beginning to feel that things were hopeless and she might as well go back to the village and face her parents, she noticed a small, brightly painted cart, hung all over with pots and pans. It was keeping well to the side of the road, out of the way of the main traffic, and travelling much slower than all the others. Best of all was the driver. Where the majority of the others were formidable looking men, scowling beneath their dark beards, the driver of this wagon was a woman. The largest woman Cate had ever seen! Dressed in a skirt and shawl as brightly coloured as her chariot, she seemed to balance precariously on the narrow seat behind the horse, at risk of rolling off with every bump. Her face reminded Cate of the dumplings her mother made, with a little cherry mouth and two tiny currant eyes twinkling gaily in the pudgy flesh.

Cate quickly shoved the stool into her bag and brushed herself down one last time. It was now or never. She was unlikely get a better chance. High above her, the wren began singing again. The driver of the cart heard it and looked around, trying to find the source of the song. Her sharp eyes picked Cate out from among the trees and she clicked to her horse, which slowed, then stopped. Now that the time had come for action, Cate found herself strangely reluctant to move. Her mind was filled with a thousand doubts and fears which froze her feet to the ground. The woman eyed her curiously, then grinned.

"Wanna lift?" she drawled, "Or you just standin' there to admire the view?"

Her voice was rough but kind, and Cate instinctively felt she could trust her. It took a few steps before her legs would fully obey her, but before she knew it, she was taking the woman's outstretched hand and allowing herself to be helped up onto the driver's bench.

"Not much room up here," the woman laughed. "Good thing you're just a little titch of a thing! Don't you go growin' on me, now, or I'll have to set you down." Cate solemnly promised that she would do her best not to grow in a hurry before she realised that she was being teased. "Don't you worry 'bout me," the woman grinned. "They may call me mad Maisie, but I don't bite. Leastwise, not scrawnly little runts like you. What's your name, kid? Where you headed?" She clicked again to the horse, and it obediently restarted its slow plod along the side of the road.

Cate gazed, wide-eyed, lost in the patterns of the woman's shawl. Red, blue and yellow flowers entwined on a deep green background, with swirling tendrils spiralling down into the fringing. She'd never seen such brilliant colours. The dyes her mother made from the materials of the forest were all muted, earthy colours. This woman's vivid plumage seemed like something from another world. Luckily, she didn't seem offended by Cate's failure to answer, because the carefully planned story Cate had been rehearsing had vanished the moment she set eyes on that shawl.

"You like me duds, do you? I'm kinda used to them by now, but there was a time I couldn't take me own eyes off 'em, I admit. You'll never see their like in this land, kid. The man who sold 'em to me said he'd travelled to the ends of the earth to get 'em. They cost me a fortune, but they've been worth it, every cent. You can look for free, though." Nodding to herself, the large woman lapsed into silence, every now and then stealing a curious glance at her passenger. "You wanna say goodbye to where you come from, now's your last chance," she said eventually. With difficulty, Cate managed to tear her eyes away from the fascinating design. She had been lost in tracing its intricate flow, amazed to discover miniscule embroidered insects cavorting amongst the leaves. Finally looking around, she noticed that they were beginning to climb into the foothills, and a bend in the road would soon hide the stand of trees from her view.

Cate peered behind them, unable to help hoping she might catch a last glimpse of her wren, though at this distance it would be impossible to seperate the tiny bird from the background. The rays of the morning sun were now creeping over the hills, and a shaft of light seemed to center on the trees where she had waited. Screwing up her eyes, Cate found she could make out a figure standing in the spot, the figure of an old woman, stooped over a sturdy walking stick. With a start, she recognised Cearo, the soothsayer. Her heart leaped into her mouth. Had she been found? It would not take much for the old woman to stop some of the men passing by and send them after her. She swallowed hard, unable to bear the thought of being dragged back to the village by strangers, just when she had felt herself safe.

"Friend of yours?" Maisie drawled, and Cate realised Cearo's arm was raised, waving farewell. She nodded, still unable to trust herself to speak, and stared backwards until the bend in the road obscured Cearo from view. Had she come specifically to see Cate off? How had she known? All she could think was that the wren had fetched the old woman, because her father had often told her of the close relationship between Cearo and the small birds. But why? Cate had never spoken to Cearo directly. The soothsayer had an unspoken understanding with Father Bede, that she wouldn't interfere with villagers who had been baptised into the church. Besides, even if the wren had gone to fetch Cearo, how could she possibly have gotten there so quickly? It had taken Cate half the night to reach that spot, and she was young and moved quickly. Cate shook her head, perplexed by too many questions without answers.

"You gonna tell me your name now? I've told you mine. It's Maisie. You can make up your own mind about the 'mad' bit once you've gotten to know me better." Maisie chuckled, as though she didn't particularly care if her passenger did think she was mad. "C'mon kid. What am I gonna call you?"

"Cate." The name popped out of her mouth before she had time to think. She stopped, her hand leaping to cover her mouth.

Maisie laughed. "Gonna pretend you was a boy, weren't you? Woulda fooled anyone less observant than me, too." She laughed again at the grimace on Cate's face. "Don't worry kiddo, I won't give you away. Ran away from home meself when I was your age. What's your story? Father beat you? Mother make you work too hard? Brothers always teasing you?" She looked expectantly at Cate, who instantly burst into tears.

"Hey! Hey now, kid, don't cry. It's all right. You just cuddle up close and tell Maisie all about it." She fumbled in the pocket of her skirt and produced an immense handkerchief. "Here you go. Use this. It's clean. Promise!" Cate took the huge square of material and blew her nose violently. "There," Maise continued, keeping up a patter of soothing conversation."That's better, isn't it? Never can think properly when your nose needs blowing. You ask Robin there," she indicated the patiently plodding horse, "'bout the only thing that ever wakes ol' Robin up is when he needs to sneeze. Never seen such a horse for sneezing." As if to validate her statement, the horse lowered his head and snorted. Cate giggled. "That's much more like it! Never cry if you can giggle, that's what I always say. Feel better?" Cate nodded. "Wanna talk about it?"

To Cate's surprise, she found that she did want to talk. Maise had shown her nothing but kindness, and she did seem to be widely travelled. As things stood at the moment, Cate had no idea where to start searching for her brothers. She was going to have to trust someone and right now, Maisie was the only candidate. Fixing her eyes firmly on the horse's ears, she told the whole story, starting with her own birth and its effect on her brothers. She was afraid to look at Maisie in case the old woman thought she was lying. Bringing the story out into the open like this made her realise how ridiculous it sounded.

Maisie listened without saying a word, right up to Cate's confession of her determination to find and rescue her brothers, wherever they might be.

"Phew," she said at last, letting out a long, low whistle. "That's quite some story."

Cate's heart sank. "I don't mind if you don't believe me," she said, biting her lip to keep from crying again.

"Who said I don't believe you?" Maisie retorted. "Give a person a chance to digest it. You can't just spring a surprise like that on a person and expect them to act as though nothing has happened. Now, let's look at the facts. Get things straight in our heads. Then we can think about what to do next. OK. First fact. You have seven brothers that you've never met. Right?" Cate nodded. She liked Maisie's businesslike way of simplifying things. "Good. You've never met them, because they were turned into ravens by your father's curse. Right?" Cate nodded again. Maisie continued, ticking the points off on her fingers as she announced them. "Fine. Now, eight years later, you decided it was your job to rescue them, so here you are. Right?" Cate nodded for the third time. "So there are the facts. What are we going to do with them?" She paused and seemed to be expecting an answer. Cate shook her head to show she had no idea what came next. Maisie pursed her lips, thinking hard. "Seems to me, what you need is an expert on ravens. Someone who knows how they behave, someone who's studied them. In eight years, someone like that is bound to have heard stories about ravens acting strangely, and we can guess that seven boys suddenly turned into ravens are bound to behave unusually, don't you think?" Cate nodded her agreement. It had never occurred to her before, but following Maisie's logic it seemed quite obvious that her brothers would have made mistakes in raven etiquette, the kind of mistakes that a student of ravens might hear about. She could never have reached that conclusion on her own simply because she had never dreamed that there was such a thing as an expert on ravens. Even now she had trouble believing it. She looked suspiciously at Maisie, who laughed back at her. "Yes, he does exist, and yes, I do know where to find him. At least, I did three years ago."

Cate laughed too, full of joy that her problems were so easily solvable. "Can you take me to him?" She asked.

Maisie shook her head. "Sorry Cate," she said. "I'm due in Varrowgate in four days, and it will take old Robin the whole time to get there. The man I'm talking about lives at the monastery near Severen's Lake. That's at least two days out of our way." She smiled down at her passenger. "Don't look at me like that. It's not the end of the world. There's a detour we can take which won't add too much to our journey, but will take you closer to the Lake. I'll let you off and give you directions on how to find him. It shouldn't be any problem at all."

Cate hugged the large woman, almost knocking her off the bench. For the first time since she had discovered the truth about her brothers she felt like her feet were finally on the path to finding them.

"Steady now," Maisie chuckled. "Robin don't go forward for anyone but me, so if you throw me off the cart, you'll be walking sooner than you think! I don't bounce as well as I used to, despite all this padding. Can you believe, once upon a time I had the smallest waist in three counties? Known far and wide I was. Now I'm just wide!" She laughed at herself so good-naturedly that Cate couldn't help but join in.

The rhythm of Robin's plodding gait was hypnotic. Cate fought to keep her eyes open, unwilling to miss even a single second of her adventure. After all, this was the furthest she had ever been from home before. The road twisted slowly up into a range of low hills, clothed on either side with forest which seemed to be an extension of the forest she had grown up in. Maisie glanced knowingly at her young passenger and began to softly hum a lullaby. Cate looked at her accusingly.

"What? Don't be silly, girl. I'm betting you didn't sleep last night, did you?" Cate shook her head. "Well, you've got a long journey ahead of you, and you'll be no use to your brothers if you're too tired to think." Maisie's voice became serious. "I want you to listen to the voice of experience here. You're going to have to learn to take advantage of the quiet times. You have no way of knowing what sort of chaos might be around the corner, so when things are peaceful and you feel safe, take that time to look after yourself. Now, is everything peaceful here?" Cate nodded. "Do you feel safe?"

"Oh, yes!" Cate couldn't imagine anything bad happening to her with Maisie at her side.

"So, what are you going to do?" Maisie grinned and gestured with her head to the wagon. "There's a pallet in the back, with blankets and a pillow. You climb back there and wrap yourself up. Nothing exciting is going to happen, I can promise you that! I'll wake you up when we get to the top of the hills. The view's really something from up there." Cate was too busy yawning to answer. Maisie's warm throaty laugh rolled out across Robin's back. The horse seemed to twitch his ears back to listen. Then he sneezed, and Maisie laughed again. "Yup, Robin's in full agreement. Time for you to get your head down."

Cate couldn't have argued if she wanted to. Truth to tell, she was already more than half asleep. She crawled thankfully into the back of the wagon, took off her boots, and rolled herself up in the blankets. The inside of the wagon was much larger than it looked from outside, and very comfortably arranged. Bunches of sweet herbs hung from the beams which supported the canvas roof. That was all Cate had time to notice before her head hit the pillow. Seconds later she was sound asleep.

"Cate! Cate, wake up!" Maisie's voice filtered vaguely through a tense dream in which Cate had successfully rescued her brothers but when they returned home, they found their parents had been transformed into owls. They, Arlys and Lynet, sat in the old oak tree above the little graveyard, and when their children tried to talk to them, all they would say was "Who? Who?" Cate felt such a sense of desolation that, once she was properly awake, she was overcome with an intense desire to run home to her parents as fast as she could, to reassure herself that they had not forgotten her. She blearily rubbed her eyes and thrust her head through the gap in the curtain, fully intending to tell Maisie that she was giving up. The next moment she was clambering out onto the bench beside Maisie, craning her neck for a better view.

"Pretty, isn't it?" The sun was setting, and they were just cresting the range of hills. In front of them lay a field of glory! The road sloped down as gently as it had risen, winding its way lazily from saddle to saddle until it reached the patchwork of pasture beyond the foothills. Above it, however, the sky was ablaze with colour. A little line of puffy clouds on the horizon glowed gold, while the heavens were suffused with a rosy pink that took Cate's breath away. Beneath the clouds, the horizon was awash with soft violet.

"It's beautiful!" Cate exclaimed, without taking her eyes from the splendour.

"Sure is," Maisie replied. "Robin and I always try to time it so we'll be here for the sunset. Don't know why it always looks so good just here, but we've never seen another spot like it."

Cate had to agree. Even in her limited experience, she had never seen such a glorious display. It was already starting to fade and she couldn't help a small sigh of disappointment. Maisie winked at her.

"Don't fret. It'll be back tomorrow, and the day after and the day after that! Maybe never quite as special as it is from this spot, but always beautiful, a sign that God and nature are in harmony. Every sunset is a blessing for those whose eyes and hearts are open to its magic. Sunrise, too, but at sunrise people are mostly full of their plans for the day, whether eager or unwilling for it to begin. At sunset, we are more relaxed and at peace with the world. We can afford to sit back and be stunned, forgetting about ourselves for a few brief moments."

Cate smiled, realising that this was exactly the effect the sunset had had on her. She felt like her bad dream had been washed away and she no longer desired to abandon her adventure. Instead, she closed her eyes and spent a few fervent seconds pleading with God to look after her parents and keep them from missing her too much.

The last beams of colour faded from the sky, and just as Cate was beginning to worry about whether Robin could keep his footing in the dark, he turned off the main road onto a narrow trail. It was even darker underneath the trees, and Cate had to hang onto the bench as the wagon rocked and bounced over tree roots, growing across the path. Maisie grunted as a particularly bad bump momentarily unseated her.

"I always say I'm going to spend some time here, some morning, and smooth this path out a bit. Never do, though. Always in too much of a hurry to get going, and always end up coming down here in the dark because we don't want to miss a second of the sunset. You don't need to worry, though. Robin's been down here a thousand times and never lost his footing yet. It's not much further. There's a small cabin for travellers that's almost always deserted. We'll be able to make ourselves a fire and cook up a nice stew for dinner. Sound good?" Cate's tummy rumbled in answer, drawing a laugh from Maisie that lasted until Robin stopped, unbidden, outside the cabin door. "What did I tell you? Knows the road better than I do, does Robin. He should! Spends all day staring down his nose at it, not staring off to the sides and daydreaming like I do." She hauled herself down from the wagon with surprising grace for such a large person, and started undoing the buckles of Robin's harness. "Darling Robin," she cooed, rubbing her head against his neck. "The most wonderful horse in the world." Cate turned away, reluctant to intrude on such a private moment, but Maisie called out to her. "Do me a favour? There's a sack of carrots just behind the bench seat. Get a nice big one out for Robin." Cate jumped to do as she was told. She brought the carrot to Maisie, who gestured to the horse. "It's for him, not me. You can give it to him. Just keep your fingers out of the way. He's greedy for carrots, is Robin. While you're doing that, I'll move a few things inside and set us up all comfy."

The Seven Ravens:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
~ Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

The Original Fairytale by The Brothers Grimm

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