"Prophet, say I, thing of evil! Harbinger, a feathered devil!"
Please shut up…
"Harbinger of wrath, to strike down false gods you adore!"
"Before you is a raven, foe to both soldier and maiden!"
"Doth not feel fear within you, filling your souls to their cores?!"
He didn't. And even if he did, Ser Wilhelm Dupris would have slapped the mad woman anyway. Which he did.
"Be silent hag," the knight murmured, looking down at the waste of flesh and bone before him. "Or I'll use my sword next time."
The threat seemed to have worked. The hag stared back at him, clearly defiant, but thankfully silent. Just as well in the knight's mind, because not only were the so-called soothsayer's words irritating, but he suspected they might be getting to his men as well. Provided their visitor hadn't already done that.
"Was that really necessary Sir?" asked Sergeant Belize.
"No. But it was satisfying."
Laughter rippled throughout the men-at-arms assembled around him. Nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless. Laughter that increased as Mudug the Soothsayer slinked off, no doubt to the watch commander to sprout the drivel he seemed to value, as if it was actual tactical information. Laughter that soon faded as the men of Castle Ravenguard were left to reflect on their situation.
Wilhelm couldn't blame them. But he was done with reflecting. He was more concerned with observing. Observing the barbarian horde that had been making its way south over the past week and the bird that had perched on the lion bust over the castle gate. A raven. The bird of the Raven Clan that was bearing down on them.
"We should get rid of it, the craven" Belize murmured, walking over to him along the battlement. "Sir," he added.
Wilhelm remained silent, just staring at the raven. It had perched and sat minutes ago, and done nothing more.
"Bad luck," Belize continued. "Lend me a bow sir, I'll get it down and-"
"No," Wilhelm murmured.
"Do nothing. If the gods are trying to send us a message, I won't shoot the messenger."
"Yes, Sir," Belize murmured. "But whose gods are we talking about?"
Wilhelm remained silent.
Ravenguard. That was the name of the castle. One of a number of fortresses stretched along the frontier, this one so named because it stood adjacent to the lands of the Raven Clan. That was how the northmen operated, each taking the namesake of an animal, and each worshiping said animal and supposedly taking on its aspects. It seemed that for all the cultural differences between those of the north and south, ravens still represented death. Which was why having a raven on the bust above the castle gate was more unsettling than had it perched on, say, a chamber door. And also why Wilhelm had forbidden any of his men to disturb it. He did not shoot messengers. He'd heard of what happened to a ship that had shot an albatross and didn't want to go through the same ordeal. Looking at the flickering lights on the plains' horizon, cast against a blood red sun set to be replaced by a full moon, he had enough to worry about.
Wilhelm turned around again, though not to Belize. Rather it was Private Suraz.
"Lord Stocking wants to see you sir," he declared.
Don't shoot the messenger. Birds, men, it remained true. But if it didn't, Suraz would be dying long before the bloody raven, because while the bird's purpose was unclear, Suraz's was as clear the open sea. Stocking wanted to see him, no doubt because he'd struck his precious soothsayer.
Sighing, Wilhelm nodded. He moved along the battlement, casting a last look at the flags hanging from them, each from a pole reaching up to the sky.
The sun was too low for his liking.
"Into the chamber thus you enter, answering to the one your better. You wish to stand at castle door, but your defiance lasts you nevermore!"
Wilhelm ignored the hag. It was hard to do, given her words, her voice and above all, her stench. But he still managed it. Lord Frederic Stocking had summoned him and in the context of being summoned before his better, he supposed sound and smell were assaults on his senses he would have to endure.
"Within your soul art thou feeling weary! Eyes are drooping, feeling dreary!"
Endure with great difficulty. Regardless, he walked past her and approached Stocking, who looked up from a map laid across a wooden table.
"My lord," Wilhelm murmured.
Stocking faced him. Plain faced, armour clad, creases along his brow…it was like looking at a mirror image, if the mirror reflected one of higher rank.
"Ser Wilhelm," he answered, straightening his back and turning away from the table. "I've heard some ill news from Mudug here."
"What? We're all doomed?"
"Perhaps. But hearing that you struck her down, and that there's a raven perched on our gates…well, I'm left wondering why your hand didn't extend to swipe at our visitor."
Wilhelm was left wondering too. Wondering why on earth his superior put faith in this witch's prattling.
The knight quickly glanced back at Mudug, huddled in the corner and whispering in her native tongue. He didn't know why Stocking kept her around. Her origins lay in the Raven Clan and in theory, that would provide tactical insight or even a basic grasp of their language. Instead, she'd assimilated their own and prattled on and on about doom, ravens and more doom. If Stocking got any useful information from the hag he didn't see how, and if he did see value in her words…well, maybe Mudug wasn't the only insane person in this castle.
"Well, Wilhelm?" the lord asked. "Is it true?"
"Yes, my Lord, it's true," the knight said, gritting his teeth like a wolf gnawing a bone. "It's true that I gave the hag what was coming to her. It's true that there's a raven on the gate. Or at least there was the last time I looked."
"And you haven't removed it."
It was a statement, not a question. Though for a brief few seconds, Wilhelm was able to entertain the notion of it being the latter, glancing again Mudug. She had Stocking's ear. It was a wonder that she hadn't taken to making the bird fly away herself, damn the consequences.
"Yes," Wilhelm declared. "I haven't removed it. I haven't shot it. I haven't done anything to aggravate it. Not after what happened to the Mariner after its captain shot an albatross."
Stocking snorted. "Superstitions, Wilhelm."
"Ah yes, of course. Because the superstitions of a band of savages are so much more valid than our own."
"Perhaps they are, perhaps not," the lord said. But I find it interesting that you place stock in one band of superstitions and not another."
"Which is what you're doing also."
"In my position, I'm entitled to."
Wilhelm didn't have an answer to that. He just stood there, gazing at the lord. Was he truly fit for command? True, he'd sent out riders, petitioning for reinforcements, but that wouldn't make a difference in the coming battle. If he didn't know better, he'd venture a guess that he might be praying for salvation or something, albeit to the wrong gods.
"May I go, sir?" the knight asked eventually. "The horde will be here soon and I'd like to let the men think that at least one of us gives a damn."
"Watch your tongue Knight, or you'll receive the same treatment you gave Mudug."
"I can take that sir."
"I bet you can." Stocking reached for his sword, but his hand only got as far as the hilt. "But very well," he said, returning to his map. "You're dismissed. I don't like a raven hanging over our fortress but if you're so against it, I'll defer to your judgement."
"I…thank you," the knight murmured, not sure why Stocking was giving him the benefit of the doubt when so much of his faith seemed to be tied up in Mudug's words. "But may I ask why?"
Stocking glanced up from the map. It was only for a moment. But the glare in his eyes was enough to convey how deep his conviction went.
"The raven is the sign of death, Wilhelm. So if we end up in his embrace by night's end, the men will know whom to blame for it."
The barbarians were there. The raven was there. A full moon was out. And looking around the men-at-arms, Wilhelm could tell that many of them wished to be anywhere but here.
"We're gonna die, aren't we?"
Wilhelm glanced at the source of the voice. One of his men. No doubt a peasant who couldn't succeed in anything other than the art of holding a sword by its hilt.
"Gonna die, gonna die, gonna-"
"One more word soldier and I'll kill you myself."
That shut the man up. But looking at all the other soldiers within earshot, the knight could tell that the damage had been done.
So far, everything had gone as predicted. It was night. The attackers weren't slowing in their approach, and it was clear that they were going to do as much damage as they could before retreating. It would be the same bloody assault on the walls, but they would also go for the gate first. So while Lord Stocking oversaw the defence from the keep, keeping messengers at hand to shift the focus of men as needed, Wilhelm's default position was at the gate. The only point where such savages had a chance of taking the castle. The point where the bloody raven was still perched on the lion's head, looking down at the horde. A horde that, as he had noticed, numbered close to a thousand, if not more. Odds of five to one.
That…could be a problem.
Wilhelm glanced around his men, their bows already nocked and arrows shining through the slits in the wall. They knew to let loose their arrows on his command. He wasn't so worried about their ability to hit the savages per se, but he wanted to make every arrow count.
Could you spare an arrow for the raven?
Maybe he could have. No doubt some of his men knew what the bird meant. Death. The symbol of the Raven Clan itself, the amount of antlers mounted on helmets notwithstanding. Maybe he would have cursed himself by shooting the bloody bird, but he'd rather live a cursed life than be dead along with two-hundred good men. And a hag, though he supposed it would serve her right.
"Birds and fiends approach the walls! One side will stand and one shall fall!"
Wilhelm shook the words off. She'd come out into the courtyard before Stocking had taken her back in, wanting to keep her safe from the approaching horde. Again, more words and actions his men could do without. And, he had to admit, himself as well.
And still the raven remained. Even as the horde charged.
It was strange, the knight reflected. Even if an attacker intended to storm a castle walls rather than trying to starve a defender out, there was usually some lull between the approach and the actual attack. But with the Raven Clan, there was no pause at all. They came, they saw, and had moved on to intended conquest. Nor was there any exclamation from his men. No doubt they were scared stiff, but they at least had enough sense to still follow his commands.
"Prepare to loose!"
Wilhelm trailed off. Seeing the barbarians charge. Their guttural war-cries, their lack of dress, their pierced flesh…he'd seen this before. But never like this.
We're going to die, the knight told himself. Honest to gods, we're going to die.
The horde charged. The defenders stood. Wilhelm remained silent. He would give the order…for all the good it would do…eventually…he-…"
Wilhelm stared as the raven flew off the lion's head, as did many of the men-at-arms. Stared as it promptly landed on the top of a flag pole and spread out its wings, filtering the light of the moon behind it.
"So the raven's on our side, as we all hath found! Watch and marvel, as it casts its shadow on the ground!"
Mudug. The old hag was back in the courtyard. Yet this time, he wasn't bothered. He was more concerned with the raven. Its shadow. Its wings spread out over the horde, shafts of moonlight penetrating through the holes in its feathers.
And the barbarians stopped. For the first time.
"Sir?" asked one of his men. "Should we…"
Wilhelm held up a hand. He didn't want them to fire. Not yet.
"And so the horde has come to stop, has ceased in waging war! Watch and see, they turn to flee, their souls uplifted nevermore!"
Perhaps Mudug was a soothsayer. How else could she see what was happening when she was down in the courtyard? How else would she know that mere seconds after her uttering those words, a series of wails would arise from the savages, each more distraught than the last? How would she know that they would turn to flee, running back north as quickly as they had surged south?
"I…I don't understand," murmured Sergeant Belize, walking over to the knight. "Why would they flee? The raven's a symbol of death."
"Aye…" Wilhelm said. "But death for whom?"
"Cast its shadow upon them. Not us."
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was speculating. Maybe Mudug was just an insane hag who'd predicted death and simply changed her prophecy at the last moment. Either way, the barbarians were in full retreat. Perhaps they'd come back. Perhaps next time, a raven would spread its wings over the castle of its namesake. Either way, as he watched the bird fly after the horde, Wilhelm knew if that was the case, he'd be here to face them.
Now, then, and forevermore.
Update (09/09/12): Made some adjustments as per reviews. Also some things to address is that the "craven" typo isn't one, it was indeed the raven being called such a thing. As for the albatross/mariner plot, that was basically a reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and not something to be followed up on.
Update (11/09/12): Made more adjustments as per feedback.
Update (29/09/12): And yet more adjustments.