Fractal Myth

THE SEVEN RAVENS

Chapter 10

[Michelle Whitehead ©2006]

Gusts of wet wind whipped around the wagon, tugging at its painted canvas cover. Maisie and Cate were silent, each huddled under a waterproof poncho of treated leather. They had been travelling since dawn, a long day of being rocked and jolted on the hard bench seat, and Cate was exhausted. It had been drizzling since they started, but now the storm was about to descend on them in earnest. She watched Robin twitching his ears irritably as he plodded forward and couldn't help wishing that he would quicken his pace. They had left the foothills about noon, and now on either side, long, rolling meadows stretched out and vanished in the grey mist. There was no shelter in sight. Not even a tree to mark the smooth expanse of green. The lack of landmarks was disorientating and as the clouds closed in around them, Cate began to feel like they were standing still. The only sign that they were still moving was the constant clopping of Robin's hooves, but as the road became wet and muddy, even this sound was muffled into nothingness.

She had tried once or twice to engage Maisie in conversation, but the gloomy weather seemed to have overshadowed the woman's normally cheerful countenance. Other than a few muttered words as she handed over a packet of dry biscuits and a flask of cordial at lunchtime, Maisie had remained steadfastly silent, gazing at the road ahead as though it would disappear if she took her eyes off it and refusing to respond to Cate's comments. Rebuffed and slightly hurt after the closeness they had shared the night before, Cate had withdrawn into her own thoughts, which were by no means cheerful. The sense of excitement and anticipation which had carried her this far seemed to have drizzled away with the weather, leaving her painfully aware of her homesickness and a strong sense of inadequacy for the task she had undertaken. All of a sudden, she felt very small, very young and very alone. What had made her believe she was capable of rescuing her brothers all by herself? Perhaps she should go back, before it was too late.

Now, with every step Robin took carrying her further from home, Cate tried to analyze her feelings of unease. Certainly she missed her mother and father, there was no denying that, and yet... somehow there was more to worry about. As far as she knew her parents were perfectly safe, going about their daily business. No doubt they missed her as much as she missed them, but they were not her major cause of concern. Nor was it fear for her own safety. She might be young and inexperienced, but she was sure she was brave. Hadn't she explored the forest all by herself and made it her own? Whatever risks and hazards lay before her, she would face each as it arose and waste no time worrying about it in advance. So if it wasn't homesickness and it wasn't fear, what was it that made her heart sink as though it were carved from stone? She chewed on her lip as she mentally gnawed over the feeling, turning it over and over, trying to find its source.

There was something teasing at the corner of her mind... an image. She could feel its edges with uncomfortable sharpness, yet the center refused to focus. Where had it come from? A dream? That must be it. With recognition came vision, as the image swelled to fill her mind. Seven huge black birds with long hooked beaks, silently watching her from the bare branches of a dead tree. There seemed to be something cruel and cold in the way they contemplated her, as if they could read her thoughts and estimated her efforts with contempt.

That was it. These seven, strong, grown-up brothers she'd never met. What if they rejected her? Ever since she'd learnt of their existence, Cate had questioned everyone who was old enough to remember them, trying to find out what they were like. After all, they had vanished on the day she was born. What if they blamed her for their misfortunes? Many people in the village thought she was to blame, even if only Bearn and Gifre dared to say so to her face. What if she journeyed to the ends of the earth and underwent all the hardships which common sense said lay ahead of her, only to be rejected by the brothers she had chosen to save? What if they were happy being ravens? What if they didn't want to come home with her? What would she say to her parents then? The thoughts welled up inside her, chasing each other round and around her brain, until she was ready to explode with anxiety.

"Leave tomorrow's troubles for tomorrow," Maisie said unexpectedly, startling Cate out of her reverie. "Today has enough of its own."

"What?" After Maisie's earlier refusal to communicate, Cate didn't feel like playing any cryptic guessing games. She felt instantly ashamed of her shortness, though. After all, Maisie was going out of her way to help her.

"Use your eyes, girl. The bridge is out. I was hoping to take you all the way to the turnoff, but this looks like the end of the road."

Cate stared into the mist ahead of them, tears springing to her eyes at the thought of being so suddenly abandoned. It was nearly evening, damp and dripping, and even Maisie's silence was better than no company at all. Just ahead of them, she could dimly see the stone ramparts of a small bridge. It had been a particularly wet spring, and sometime in the last few weeks a flash flood had obviously roared down from the hills, splintering the wooden beams of the bridge and carrying them away downstream. Where the solid span of a crossing should be, there was only a wide expanse of turbulent water. Even now, long after the flood waters had receded, the river had still not returned to its banks. The ramparts which should have marked the transition from road to bridge were more than a body's length out from the spot where the road disappeared under water. They were decorated halfway to the top with tangled grass and flotsam, marking the height which the torrent had reached. The fierce current eddied and swirled around them, as if trying to accomplish by persuasion what it had not managed to achieve by force. The ramparts still stood strong, but already Cate could see that the mortar between the stones was being eroded away. It was only a question of time.

Sighing inaudibly, Cate climbed down from the wagon, placing her bag carefully on the seat while she wrestled with removing the heavy poncho.

"Hey! Where you going?"

Cate shrugged. "You said..."

"I said Robin and I couldn't take you any further. I didn't say I was going to chuck you out into a night like this, all on your lonesome without even a waterproof coat to keep you dry! What sort of a friend do you take me for?" Maisie shook her head, chuckling under her breath. "You're a stubborn, brave kid, I'll give you that, but there's no need to go marching off on your high horse without even saying goodbye! Robin'd be heartbroken! Not to mention me! No. We'll camp here with you tonight and turn back in the morning. It won't add much to our trip. We'll still get to Varrowville in time, and at least we'll know we sent you on your way after a good night's sleep with a full belly. That is, unless you object to sharing the wagon with me and would rather sleep out there in the open?"

Blushing, Cate agreed that she had been too hasty. With practiced efficiency, Maisie dragged a pile of spare canvas from the wagon and began constructing a campsite by the side of the road. Looking around, Cate lamented the lack of trees which meant there was no wood for a fire. She could imagine nothing nicer at that moment than warming herself by a cheerful blaze. Then she had a thought. After checking to see that Maisie didn't need her help, she wandered off downstream, keeping her eyes on the edge of the water.

Soon enough she found what she was looking for. In a cutaway section of the bank, a mini-whirlpool had formed, collecting all kinds of detritus and spinning it towards the verge. Grabbing a fistful of grass as an anchor, Cate reached out towards several sizeable chunks of wood which bobbed tantalisingly near the bank. It was just beyond her reach. She leaned further, managing to tip one of the chunks towards her and flip it out of the water. Then, tightening her grip on the hank of grass, she reached for the next one. As she did, she felt the roots of the grass begin to move in the soggy soil. At the angle she was at, if the grass gave way she would be pitched headfirst into the roiling water and carried away before she had time to call out. Cate was a strong swimmer, but there was no way she could fight against a current that fierce. Despite the danger, she kept reaching, praying as she did that she wouldn't fall. She was determined to snare that second piece of wood.

The log rolled back and forth in the wash from the current, tantalisingly close to her fingertips. If she could just lean a little bit further out she was sure she would be able to pull it to the bank. Her fingers scrabbled in the wet soil, searching for a better grip. Just then, the ground under her feet crumbled away, plunging her into the swollen river. As she fell, Cate instinctively grabbed the log she had been reaching for, hoping it would help her stay afloat.

Seconds later she splashed to the surface, gasping with shock from the icy water. The current was tugging strongly at her clothes, trying to drag her away downstream, but someone must have been listening to her prayers, for as the bank gave way, it had unearthed the thick crook of an old tree root. The tree was long gone, but fortunately for Cate, its roots had remained buried, anchored strongly in the heavy clay. As she fell, her foot had wedged itself between the root and the bank. Now it was all that prevented her from being swept violently downstream.

With the sodden log tucked under her arm, Cate struggled to gain purchase in the slippery mud, fighting to resist the river's pull. Her hands were numb with cold and her grip skidded several times as she tried to clamber up the tree root, scraping the skin from her palms. Eventually she made it to solid ground and lay there, sobbing with relief. She was muddy, scared and cold, but her mind was racing. There was no way to disguise her sodden clothing, but Maisie didn't need to know how close her young friend had come to disaster. She would only worry, and it was obvious she had enough problems of her own to think about without taking on Cate's quest as well.

Scrambling to her feet, Cate stood safely back from the brink of the river, clutching the two large pieces of wood against her chest. For a few seconds she stood there, breathing heavily and enjoying a shaky sense of triumph. Other than her bruised ankle and skinned palms, she seemed to have escaped unscathed. Between her thick boots, leather trousers and the waterproofed canvas jacket Maisie had lent her, she had even managed to keep her underclothes reasonably dry. It was a simple matter to squeeze the water from her hair and wipe the worst of the mud from her clothes with a handful of wet grass. Once she was satisfied that she looked presentable, she trudged back across the damp meadow to find Maisie.

"What are they for?" Maisie asked sceptically, as Cate appeared, proudly carrying her burden.

"A fire?" Now that she was back at the campsite, her sense of achievement was beginning to fade.

"But they're soaking wet," Maise objected. "How are we supposed to get them to light?"

Cate dumped the logs on the driest patch of ground she could see. It wasn't fair. She'd done the hard work and risked her life to get the wood. Why wouldn't Maisie meet her half way? After all, she wasn't the one with all the weird powers. "Couldn't you...?" Cate gestured indistinctly with her hands, approximating the movements she had seen Maisie make the night before.

Maisie blanched, all colour leaving her face. Her eyes blazed and she seemed suddenly to loom over Cate, huge and angry. "What do you know about that? Have you been spying on me, you little sneak?"

Grabbing Cate's arm, Maisie shook her fiercely, shocking the young girl with the violence of her reaction. With no thought of fighting back, Cate stuttered out an apology and attempted to explain. She hadn't thought it possible to be afraid of Maisie, but now she began to realise just how little she knew about this strange woman who had befriended her. She had never meant to mention her intrusion into Maisie's privacy and her regret at having done so overpowered her fear. If only she hadn't been feeling so terribly tired and damp and disgruntled. If only she had considered the consequences of her words. If only...

"I'm sorry!" she kept repeating, long after Maisie had let her go.

The older woman stood, considering her. All the anger had faded from her face and she looked as cheerful and motherly as before. "It's alright. Stop crying. It's my fault. I should know better than to let my guard down after all these years, especially around a child. And besides, you're perfectly correct. That's exactly what I would do if I were here by myself, so why should you suffer for my embarrassment? Just... just don't ask me to talk about it. OK?"

Cate nodded, sniffling and blinking back tears. If Maisie wanted to remain mysterious, that was fine with her. She couldn't help being curious though. The way she saw it, it would be wonderful to have magical powers... so why should Maisie feel so embarrassed and prefer to hide what she could do? Shaking with leftover emotion, she crept out of the tent and into the next shelter, where Robin stood munching peacefully on a mash of oats and bran. He raised his head and snuffled at Cate, who buried her head in his mane. Unconcerned, Robin returned his attention to more important things. His warm, horsey smell was comforting and before long Cate found that her sobs had subsided and she felt much calmer. Picking up the stiff-bristled brush that lay close at hand, she began teasing the knots out of his mane and grooming the caked mud from his sides. At the first touch of the brush, the horse's head swung quickly towards her and she held her breath, fearing that once again she had offended a friend. After regarding her quizzically for a few seconds, however, Robin seemed to decide that her attentions were not unwelcome. He relaxed, raised one hoof slightly off the ground, and nodded off into a light doze.

Cate had no idea how long she stood there, lost in the rhythm of her brush strokes, concentrating her attentionly completely on the task at hand, but when she stood on tiptoes to try and reach up Robin's back, she found the brush being lifted gently from her hand.

"Go in and get dry," Maisie said quietly. "I'll finish off here." She smiled softly, shaking her head. "I'm not sure whether to be proud or jealous," she admitted. "Robin's never let anyone except me brush him before. The last stablehand who tried to touch him ended up on his backside with a hoofprint on his chest." Maisie giggled at the memory. "I guess what I'm saying is that if Robin trusts you, then I trust you. Not that I didn't already, but Robin's a better judge of character than I am. I've been fooled many times in the past, but Robin always seems to know what's in a person's heart. He likes you, and that's good enough for me. Now, go and take advantage of that lovely warm fire. You're frozen through." Maisie reached out towards Cate, who instinctively flinched. Instantly Maisie retracted her hand, her eyes flooding with hurt. Cate stepped towards her, wishing she could live the moment over again, but Maisie was already busying herself with Robin's broad back, brushing the places Cate couldn't reach. "It's probably for the best," Cate heard Maisie mutter, as she moved towards the tent with the fire. "Not everyone out there is as harmless as Mad Maisie. A young girl like that's going to get into trouble if she goes around believing the world is safe. We know better. Don't we, Robin my love?"

Anything further that was said was lost in the darkness as Cate staggered the few steps between tents. She truly was cold now, chilled to the bone and shaking with exhaustion. Even her long days spent wandering carefree in the forest had not prepared her for the rigours of such a journey. What would it be like tomorrow, when she had to depend on her own feet to carry her forward? At least she had managed to distract Maisie enough so she hadn't noticed that Cate had been swimming. Wrapping herself tightly in one of Maisie's blankets, Cate removed her outer clothes and spread them out to dry. Then she spooned out a bowl of stew from the cauldron and hunched over its steam, trying to ignore both the strange blue light flickering on the edge of the flames and the scornful image of seven ravens hovering in the back of her mind.

By the time Maisie returned to the tent, Cate was fast asleep. Moving with cat-like grace, the large woman held a cool hand against Cate's forehead. The girl was flushed, her skin hot and clammy. She tossed restlessly beneath the thin blanket. Maisie sighed. Her first thought was that this gave her the opportunity to keep Cate by her side. In the short time they had been together, she had grown very fond of the brave little girl. All day she had been brooding on the loneliness which would return once Cate was gone. It was so rare to find such unquestioning acceptance of her help and friendship. She was used to being treated with suspicion and hostility, as an outsider, an unwelcome intruder with no fixed place or family of her own, and she had almost convinced herself that she preferred things that way. Maisie sighed again. Much as she would have liked to spend more time with Cate, they both had more important plans which could not be put aside, even with illness as an excuse.

Outside, thin clouds raced across a sliver of moon. There was hardly any light, but Maisie moved easily through the darkness, quickly locating the plants she needed. Returning to Cate, she crushed the herbs in her hands, releasing their strong aroma. Then she tossed the pungent leaves on the fire. A pale blue smoke drifted along the floor, tracing the line of Cate's breathing. It rushed towards her when she inhaled and retreated slightly as she breathed out. As it entered her nostrils, she sighed and sank into a much deeper sleep. Satisfied, Maisie found another blanket for herself and lay down behind Cate. Feeling a warm body behind her, Cate snuggled backwards until she was nestled in Maisie's arms.

"Definitely too trusting for her own good," Maisie whispered, pressing her lips against the crown of Cate's head. "God bless her." Closing her eyes, she lay drowsily listening to Cate's breathing and dreaming of people from her past.

Cate woke early, surprised to feel herself so refreshed and full of energy. At the very least her ankle should be throbbing, and the grazes on her palms should sting. Instead, she realized that her hands had healed overnight, with only a scab or two to show for her escapade. She crept from the shelter of Maisie's arms and stirred the ashes of the fire to life, eager to start the kettle boiling. A quick check showed that her clothes were dry enough to wear.

The early morning sun was quickly burning away the mist in a blaze of gold and rose and it was exhilarating to wash her face and hands in the river's icy flow. Her heart sang with contentment as she tidied her hair with the beautiful comb Maisie had given her, braiding it neatly as she had been shown. She had not been able to eat much of last night's stew, and now she found she was incredibly hungry. With a feeling of celebration she pulled the loaf of her mother's bread from her bag. The crust was slightly dry, but when she cut it, the bread inside was soft and appetizing. After hunting around for a suitably forked stick, she settled back to toast several slices over the glowing coals.

Before long, Maisie woke and joined her by the fire, gratefully accepting a piece of hot, dry toast. To Cate's surprise, she ate it greedily, even picking the crumbs from her lap and transferring them to her mouth. It was the first time Cate had seen her actually eat something, and she found it strangely reassuring.

"Of course, it would be better with Mumma's fresh butter," Cate apologised, after Maisie had complimented her on her mother's cooking.

Maisie shrugged. "Beggars can't be choosers. It was delicious! But now you've cut it, it won't keep fresh. I have some herbs here..." She hunted in the box containing her cooking supplies, emerging with a small packet of dried, crushed leaves. "Sprinkle these on the cloth when you wrap the bread up again. They'll stop it going mouldy, at least for a while." Cate thanked her profusely, wishing once again that there was some way to repay Maisie for all her kindness.

Maisie, however, brushed off her attempts to show her gratitude and turned the conversation to the path Cate must take once they parted company. "The earlier you get going the better," she stated matter-of-factly. "As it is you'll have to spend two nights sleeping rough. It should be worth it when you get to the monastery, though. They are famed far and wide for their hospitality. It's one of my favourite places to stay, though I think most of the monks would prefer it if I didn't stop there."

The track Cate was to follow was barely visible as it wove through the long grass, across the featureless meadow. She surveyed it dubiously, hoping that Maisie was correct in her assumption that it would be impossible for Cate to get lost, so long as she kept heading towards the sunset, with the river always on her right.

"You'll know when you get near the monastery. When the river widens out to form Severen's Lake, listen for the sound of the bells. It should be obvious when you hear them. The person you want to talk to is Brother Halwende. Just wait until you see one of the monks wandering around talking to himself. It's pretty much guaranteed to be him. The others avoid him, but he's perfectly harmless, and no-one knows more about birds. If anyone can suggest where to start looking for your brothers, he can."

Cate listened closely, trying to make sure she would remember what Maisie had said. At the same time she found herself wondering how many more friends she would have to leave behind before her journey was over. First her parents and Aedre, now Maisie and Robin. Still, there was no use dwelling on what lay behind. She had chosen her path and sworn to walk it whatever the cost. If only she could banish from her mind that image of seven cruelly curving beaks and seven pairs of glittering black eyes.

"Hello! You in there?" Maisie waved a hand in front of Cate's eyes. "No time for daydreaming! We've got to get started on our way, or the day will be over and we will not make it to Varrowville in time. Some of us have a schedule to keep!" Her voice was brisk and businesslike, effectively pitched to rouse Cate from her reverie. "Go and say goodbye to Robin while I finish packing the wagon."

Cate did as she was told, glad of the chance to stand quietly for a few minutes with her head buried in the stiff hair of Robin's mane. The big horse turned his head to nuzzle at her and she stroked his soft nose, laughing as his whiskers tickled her neck. Then Maisie touched her on the shoulder and she found herself enfolded in a tight hug. She returned the embrace, clinging to the large woman with all her strength. After a while they seperated reluctantly. Cate repeated her invitation for Maisie to visit her parents, and Maisie promised that she would stop by when she was next in the area. With a sentimental gesture, Maisie straightened Cate's jacket and made sure that her shirt was well tucked in. "Keep yourself warm," she admonished. "You don't want to get sick when there's no-one to look after you."

Almost as an afterthought, she reached her hand into the folds of her skirt and brought out a tiny beetle. Its jet black wings glistened with a metallic blue sheen. She clipped it onto Cate's lapel. "That's so you don't go forgetting old Mad Maisie." Her finger lightly brushed Cate's lips, forestalling any protest. "Wherever you go, keep your eyes open for little insects like this one. When you see them you can be sure of a welcome. It's probably best if you don't mention my name, though. Just tell them you were given this by a friend. They won't ask for any details. Now, here's your bag. Take it and get out of here before I change my mind." Maisie laughed at Cate's bewilderment. "I'm tempted to kidnap you to keep me company, and then who would rescue those brothers of yours?"

Cate joined in Maisie's laughter, standing on tiptoe to kiss her one last time. She flung her arms around Robin's neck, kissing him on the nose. She didn't want Maisie to see her crying again, so she swiftly scooped up her bag and bolted down the path, resisting the temptation to look back.

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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