by Emily Randolph-Epstein
My body resists the calling song. Wings aching from flying lessons with my eggsitter’s mate. My tummy, bloated with spiders and seeds and sweet berries, makes me torpid.
But the song acts as a crank, lifting my head from under my blue and black wing. Around me, my nestmates stir, blinking sleepy eyes. “Flyflutter.” The song, sweet and clear as dew on bunchgrass, drifts on the summer breeze. Not a war song or a warning song, or a mating serenade. The melody ensnares me as inevitably as any raptor’s talons.
I feather my wings and leap from the nest into the sun-dappled sky. My nestmates follow, and our throats form the notes of the song.
Our eggsitter calls after us from her seat on a new clutch of eggs, “Comeback! Comeback! Dangerdanger!” Her song is a hollow drone compared to the intricate melody that pulls us as surely as our homing instinct.
We tweet through the forest, and with each passing oak and birch and cedar, our number grows; jays and warblers and thrushes join our flight until we are a storm of wings and beaks and song. “Fly. Come fly with us. Fly.” Our wingless neighbors, with their shadow tails and wiggle whiskers, scamper through the canopy in our wake, leaping branches, chittering along to our song in their own languages. The underbrush creaks with the passage of woolly rabbits and wobble-legged deer.
We burst from the trees, drawn to a human nest that stands in the murdered part of the forest. “A witch lives there, little Bunting Bright.” My eggsitter’s mate had warned during our lessons. I thought then that a witch was a type of stoat or fox or maybe a terrible crow, thief of nestlings and eggs.
A human stands in one of the nest’s higher openings, her featherless wings flung wide. The song pours from her soft, flat beak. “Fly to me.”
I land on one of the fleshy branches that mark the end of her wing, repeating her song to her. She smiles, revealing predator teeth. I should be afraid. I should fly, flee, cry warning, but the refrain cuts through the acid fear coating my throat. There is nothing to fear. The singer will keep me safe. She will never harm me. She kisses me lightly, soft beak brushing my indigo crest feathers, and then I’m tossed in the air.
I catch myself on a pop of wings, and a new song fills my mind. “Workwork. Workwork.” My throat forms the notes. My nestmates and I break off from the rest of the forest creatures streaming into the human nest. We flutter to the bed — a word we did not know now woven into our minds through the notes of the working song. We hook our grasping toes into fabric and pull sheets and quilt up in what the song tells us is the proper bed-making procedure. My legs ache. The muscles that pump my wings scream agony. The pain is almost enough to drive the song’s compulsion from my head, but the singer sings louder.
Pain is nothing. Naught. Nothingnaught. Nothingnaughtnaught.
The human nest swirls with our activity. I make beds with my nestmates. The rabbits pump water into a basin while squirrels wash soiled dishes. The deer sweep their tails over furniture, releasing clouds of dust into the air. The singer directs all with her song and her broom, face peeled in a smile.
And then there is a banging.
The singer startles. Her notes fall flat, then fade. “Who could that be?” She goes to the nest’s door.
My imprisoned agency slips free from the song’s cell. I blink. What am I doing? Why am I here? I open my toes, dropping the sheet my nestmates and I have been drawing over the seventh bed. Hide, cries my instinct. With a flapflap, I’m in the branches of the skinned trees that support the roof of the human nest. My heart flutters faster than a hummingbird’s wings, and I pant, my entire body quivering from fear and exhaustion.
My nestmates call after me. “Come back! We have to work.” Don’t they know that something’s wrong? Why are we listening to the singer’s song? Why must we work?
The door opens, and the wind curls dead leaves onto the squirrel-swept floor. A dark-hooded figure stands backlit by the sun.
“May I help you?” the singer asks. The sunlight glints off her hair.
“Won’t you buy some candied walnuts, help a poor old woman?” The hooded figure steps across the threshold. Her white hair scraggles to her shoulders; she holds a basket of sweet-smelling nuts on a gnarled arm.
“Oh, how delicious!” The singer digs in her apron pocket for something shiny and round.
I huddle more profoundly into the shadows as the two humans make an exchange: shiny for a paper bag of sugared walnuts.
“Thank you, my dear” The old woman’s voice wheezes between her cracked lips. “Give them a taste.”
The singer laughs. The paper bag crinkles as she chooses a walnut and pops it into her blood-colored beak.
A gagging cough wracks the air. My forest fellows, still caught in the snare of the work song, scatter, some joining me up in the high shadows with cobwebs, others scampering into the corners, hiding under the beds. They cower as the singer chokes. She clutches her throat; her face, once as fine and white as down, turns crimson then purple. She falls to her knees.
The old woman stands over the choking singer, and as I blink out from the shadows, her face changes. Wrinkles smooth into brown skin; hair darkens and snakes itself into braids that wrap around her head. Jewels twinkle at her ears. She laughs, full-throated and joyful. “At last, you’ll trouble me no more, Princess!” Her eyes sparkle as the singer falls limp to the floor.
My fellow captives rush to the singer’s side — caught in the memory of the song — as her killer makes a cape-sweeping exit. They crowd around the singer, cooing and whining in concern as if she hadn’t ensnared and enslaved us, forced us to do labor we weren’t built to do. They act like they care for her, and perhaps the song addled their minds so much that they do.
This is my chance to escape. With a deep breath for courage, I leap down from the roof trees towards the open door: a cerulean streak. I zip through the air, ignoring my nestmates calling after me. Get out. Break free. Fly.
My wings catch a forest breeze, and I lift towards the trees, trilling the triumph of my escape.
The air freezes. Not the air, my wings. I’ll fall. I strain against whatever holds my wings spread against the sky, but I might as well have tried to pluck the sun from its crowning height. I hang in suspension.
“What have we here?” The dark-haired woman with her killer nuts gazes at me, her bright eyes filled with curiosity. “One of the little slaves, trying to escape.”
My heart thumps hard against the hollow bones of my chest. My feathers puff up. I want to twitter my warnings. “Flee. Flee. Danger.” But my song is bottled in my throat.
The woman holds up a finger, just as the singer did when she first called me to do her bidding. I strain against the summons, trying to flap my wings, to ruffle a feather, to call out in protest, but I am frozen.
Some force drags me paralyzed through the air until my feet hook round the woman’s finger and she holds me level with her crow-shining eyes. “I sense a mighty spirit in you, little one,” she says with a smile of lips — no teeth. “You broke the little princess’s compulsion spell.” Her smile widens, teeth on full display, a fox now, more than a crow. “I think you might serve nicely. But not like this.” She tuts. “No. You are too bright and blue, little Bunting. That won’t do. Not at all. We need something black, something sleek.” Her lips purse and she blows breath hot and glittering into my beak.
I shriek as my bones stretch and pop. My skin burns as my feathers shift and change growing longer, slicking onyx. My beak lengthens, sharpens. My feet become talons. I cry out in pain, but instead of my sweet song, a ragged caw shrieks from my throat. She’s turned me into a raven.
* * *
My song is broken, an ugly caw. Despite the perks of raven-hood, I cannot grow accustomed to it, so I try not to speak.
“Haven’t I given you a marvelous gift, Bunting, my familiar.” That’s what the Queen calls me: familiar. Though she is just as strange and wrong to me as the singing princess who snatched me and my nestmates with her song. “So strong and sleek you are now.”
Strong? True. Sleek. True as well. But gift? No, it feels not like a gift. My wings are too long to be mine, too black, no indigo remains. How did I become this creature of night and tar and cawing? Can I ever return to my bunting self, flitting through the forest with my nestmates, free upon the breeze?
But I cannot leave the Queen. Though my mind is my own now, there is a corner that is hers. A loyalty unearned that calls me to roost in her tower, to perch on her shoulder, and groom her silvered black hair.
I wish I could gouge out that loyalty with my new grown raven’s beak, crush it between talons, but it won’t break no matter how I try.
* * *
One day, I wake to the crash of breaking glass and a feral scream splitting from the Queen’s throat, blowing out the magic candle which shows her all the kingdom’s secrets. “That little minx! I should have known she had contingencies in place.”
“Majesty?” I caw from my perch, for she has gifted me the speech of her kind. My raven tongue is not shaped for the words, and they leave my throat raw with each utterance.
“The Princess cast a spell on some hapless farm boy before I cursed her,” the Queen says. “Now he’s gone and kissed her and broken my curse.” She paces back and forth across the floor, fists folding and unfolding as if she wishes she had talons to rend and tear through flesh. “I should have killed her. She’ll come for me now, Bunting. She’ll raise an army and lay siege to us.”
“Don’t know armies. Don’t know sieges,” I caw, still saddened by the ugliness of my new voice. “But in the forest, birds sing warsong. Fly forth and give chase.” I conjure the memory of my eggsitter’s mate defending our nest whenever any creature came too close.
The Queen smiles, showing teeth. “Well, aren’t you a clever little Bunting?” Her shiny eyes fix on me, and she tilts her head. “How would you like to be a dragon, my pet?”
I don’t know what a dragon is or if it’s better than being a raven or a bunting, but I don’t think I have a choice, no matter how the Queen asks.
* * *
I examine myself, once the pain subsides. The cracking scream of bones stretching, changing shape, rearranging from shoulder-sitting raven, to room-filling dragon. I still have wings, but my raven feathers are gone, pushed from my flesh by scales that shine like gemstones in the sunlight, the same shining blue my feathers had been when I was a bunting, bright and indigo. When I open my mouth to sing with joy at my indigo beauty, it isn’t a song that issues forth, but fire. A great burst of heat billows from my throat. The trees that cling to the edge of the Queen’s tower catch and crackle.
Fire rips through the forest.
Birds scatter to the wind, calling warning as the fire spreads. No! What have I done? I bat at the conflagration with my great leather wings. Go out! Go out! Stop burning. But the fire burns hotter, spreads further. Why didn’t the Queen warn me that dragons breathe fire?
“I see you are eager for war, my Bunting.” The Queen smiles and with a sweep of her hand, rains burst from the clouds in a deluge that sizzles the fire out before it can devour too much of the forest that once was my home.
My heart, once small as a fingernail, now big as a foxhound, seizes, squeezes. My lungs scream sorrow I cannot show, not with how pleased the Queen is.
I’m too big, now, for my old nest, my song too fierce to sing for my old friends and nestmates. Sadness droops my wings, deflates my jeweled chest. Even when the Princess is defeated, and my forest friends are free, I won’t be able to go back. Even if the Queen changes me back into a bunting, it won’t be the same. How could I flit through the trees on careless breezes when I have had raven’s cleverness in my mind, when I have breathed dragon fire? When not even my heart is a bunting’s?
I cannot go back, but still, I can save the ones who can.
The Queen pats my side. How small she is, standing in my shadow. If I’m not careful, I will crush her. “Patience, my Bunting, my dear familiar. Soon the Princess will come with her army, and then you may burn to your heart’s content.”
Even through my horror, that traitor corner of my mind yearns for flames, bright and hot and all-consuming.
* * *
Soon comes quickly, indeed. After one night spent with new body curled around the stone cladding of the tower, I wake to a rumble in the ground as the Princess and her army march forth from the forest.
They are grotesques, her soldiers. Creatures of rock and weight, dragging clubs along the ground that still bear roots and branches from the days when they were trees.
The forest empties of all the creatures not yet slaved to the Princess and the fear in their calls rouses me. I unwind my body from around the tower, stretch my wings and roar forth fire into the dawning sky. For the Queen, my mistress, sovereign of that sliver of mind, wishes to see her foes burn.
“Is that the best you can do, Your Majesty?” the Princess calls from the back of a horse of marble. Beside her rides her mate on a matching mount. “How quaint.” Her blood-red lips curl in a smile, and she opens her mouth to sing.
It is the same song that once drew me from my nest. The song that wound its notes into my mind and cut me off from my own will.
It sinks into my ears again, and my wings twitch in my desire to fly to the Princess.
She won’t retake me.
Too much of my mind belongs to another. I won’t surrender the rest.
I roar; my flames lick across my elongated fangs towards the Princess on her marble horse. The horse whickers and rears, throwing her to the ground.
This is my chance. The force of my take-off tears chunks of stone from the Queen’s tower. I swoop, dodging the clumsy swings of tree-trunk clubs. I snare the Princess in my war claws. She screams forth a song and the birds I once flew with burst from the trees, swarming my eyes and my ears. I clamp my teeth closed against the urge to roar in pain. Don’t they understand I’m trying to free them?
How can they understand when the Princess’s song is in their heads?
I flap my mighty wings, soaring up and up and up above the clouds, higher and higher until the air grows too thin for the Princess to sing, too high for the birds to follow.
She gasps. “Put me down.” The Princess pounds against the muscled scales of my leg with dainty fists. “Put me down.”
But I charge upward, ever upward, carrying her and her poisonous songs away from the earth, clear of the innocent birds and beasts she pulled into her war with the Queen.
And when the air is too thin for her to keep awake, I open the cage of my claws, and she falls.
I hover in the air, keen eyes piercing cloud layers as the Princess smashes onto the slate roof of the Queen’s tower. As her blood pools in the tower’s gutters, her stone army crumbles. The bird song changes tone; the squirrels chatter excitedly. I want to join their celebration, but now I am too big for them; I am too much changed.
“Marvelous, my Bunting!” The Queen claps her hands in glee. She opens her arms to me, as if I can share her joy.
The place where joy once filled my feathered-breast is fire-filled instead. Everything once soft about me has turned scaled, hardened. The Queen has stolen me from myself as assuredly as the Princess stole me from my nest. She’s taken a sliver of my mind.
She’s gone from me.
In my struggle against the Princess’s slaving song, I must have broken free of the Queen as well. I’m free.
Fire fills me.
I bear down on the Queen with my inferno.
She screams before falling to cinders.
I perch on the remains of the flaming, smashed tower. Look to the forest. Birds and beasts flee back to that sylvan domain I once called home.
Satisfied that they are free, I wheel above the clouds in search of a new nest, a place where I can sing my fiery song a safe distance from all that might burn.
* * *
About the Author
Emily Randolph-Epstein was raised by a pack of wild poodles in small-town America. She spent her childhood LARPing, reading fantasy novels, and writing Tamora Pierce fan fiction. She’s known since age eleven that she wanted to be a novelist. After failing most enthusiastically to grow up, she is now a writer and musician living in Perth, Australia with her husband and dog. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Matter Magazine, Zooscape, and Infinite Worlds Magazine.