Crows gathered by the hundreds, sitting in the trees, on the roof of the small cottage, scattered among the out-buildings. Shoulder-to-shoulder, they sat silently, watching the human woman digging a hole in her garden. A small bundle wrapped in a flour-sack sat on the ground beside her. The young crow known as Crest tilted his head this way and that, watching the woman, his family, and his extended clan, only occasionally returning to the still bundle that contained the earthly remains of his uncle. The witch worked with tears in her eyes, and Crest knew somehow that she mourned the passing of her companion as much as his clan did.
The Pinewood Valley Clan watched in silence, only the occasional rustling of feathers and the gritty crunch of the metal biting into the soil marring the solemn stillness. Crest liked watching her, and he liked the way her hands matched the color of the soil, but today he got no joy out of it. Eventually, she completed her hole, and placed the bundle in the bottom. She spoke in the twittering human tongue, like a skylark’s voice, then began filling in the grave. As she did, there was a rustling among the Clan, and soon the sound of feathers filled the air like a storm of falling leaves. As the woman patted down the last of the dirt, all the crows set up a racket of calls, each one screaming a defiant tribute to their fallen brother in the dirt. The woman looked up at them, watching until they finished. She made a strange gesture, touching her head, mouth, chest, and stomach, then pressing her hands together and bowing slightly. Crest blinked, pondering the meaning. But before he got very far, Grandmother SilverSky, the eldest crow in the clan, cawed for quiet and order.
“Pinewood Valley Clan, my brother Duskwing has passed to the realm of The Blessed Four, and thus it comes time for us to choose among our people who will take his place by the Witch’s side, as is our sworn charge. One among us will fill Duskwing’s place as her companion and assistant in all her work.”
The rustling rose to fever pitch again, and Grandmother screamed for quiet. “Each family may put forth the name of one unmated crow above fledgeling age. Then the Stones will decide among them. Remember, put forth your best. They are to serve as the Witch’s Companion, a post of honor and responsibility.”
Crest’s attention wandered as Grandmother began calling on each family in turn. He watched the witch watching the clan. Her soft brown hair, in a cloud around her face, matched her brown face. She reminded him of a little brown wren, somehow. Eventually she went back into her cottage, and Crest tried to drag his attention back to the proceedings.
Grandmother SilverSky said, “And finally, from my own family we put forth my daughter’s chick Crest.”Crest nearly overbalanced in surprise. They wanted him to take Great Uncle Duskwing’s perch?
Grandmother continued, “He is sometimes silly, but clever and honest. We have 7 candidates, an auspicious number. It is time to throw the stones, and let them decide.”
Four ancient crows, Grandmother’s cronies, flapped up, each carrying a smooth pebble carefully scored by crow beaks generations ago. Crest remembered how they had looked the last time he had seen the Stones. Each side was colored differently, a lighter side and a darker side. The lighter sides had symbols sacred to each of the Four. The Dawn Crow, Even’ Crow, Sun Crow, and Moon Crow had their own spheres they ruled over, and sometimes only a single stone would be cast. But for this important of a decision all four of the Crow Gods would be called upon.
Grandmother hopped to the ground and scratched a mark for each candidate on the ground. One by one she took a stone and placed them on the backs of her compatriots. They flew up, performing a few sacred flips in the air above the symbols. The pebbles spiraled down to land in a special pattern. The eldest crows conferred, then Grandmother resumed her place and clicked her beak for attention.
“The Stones have spoken. The Witch’s Companion will be…” She looked right at Crest, and his chest constricted. Her beak stabbed in his direction. “Crest.”
A cawing and flapping of wings arose, and he fell off his perch entirely, landing sideways on the edge of the roof. His family clustered around him, while his mother’s chest swelled with her pride, feathers sticking in all directions as she fluffed. His egg-mates hooted appreciatively, and the new fledglings chattered at him, flapping their still-fluffy wings. Crest righted himself and hopped back onto his perch atop the Witch’s house, trying to puff himself up like an important bird, though he just felt ridiculous. Grandmother approached, her age-mates shoving other crows out of the way. Together, the five oldest crows bowed deeply.
Crest shrank, looking around. The entire flock was following suit, bowing his his direction. He turned back to Grandmother SilverSky, bobbing his head a little. Was he supposed to bow too?
Grandmother straightened and looked him in the eye. “As the Witch’s Companion, you hold the safety of our Clan in your claws. May you grow in wisdom and power at her side.”
With a sudden explosion of wings, the entire clan rose into the air, swirling and rising on updrafts like a black storm. The Eldest remained behind for a moment to buffet him with her wing affectionately.
“You’ll be fine. The Four will guide you, just do your best.”
Crest found his voice at last. “Yes Grandmother. I will. I will not disappoint you.”
Nodding satisfaction, she spread her wings and soared off into the clear blue sky. Crest was alone. On the Witch’s house. Where he was supposed to stay. And do…something. He sat, like a lump of shiny black volcano rock, on the roof for a long time, trying to wrap his head around it all. He might have sat longer, but the Witch herself came out of the door and looked up at him. She said something, and his natural curiosity kicked in. He hopped down to the edge of the roof where it hung low, and looked into her face. Her brown eyes twinkled kindly, and her beakless mouth was curled in the expression humans used when they were happy. She held out a hand, and he hopped onto it. Her body-covering extended along her arms, and the soft green made him think of grass-covered hills. Bright ribbons fluttered from her hair, and he gently tugged on one with his beak, but it was attached more firmly than he had thought. The Witch trilled the human amusement-call, and he squawked back at her. She laughed again, and spoke to him, stroking his head softly.
There was something else too, a gentle tingle feeling, like the wind ruffling his feathers, but it was ruffling the inside of his head, not the out. It tickled and made him puff all his feathers out until he looked like a ball of black fluff. The Witch watched him, looking pleased. That must have been her magic. Uncle Duskwing had told him about it once, speaking of the wonders she could do. Crest wished he’d spent more time with his Great Uncle now. What was he supposed to do? Uncle had never said anything about difficulty communicating with The Witch, but Crest had no clue how to even begin.
Finally, a burst of inspiration hit him, and he flapped off to the Witch’s garden. Using his short thick beak, he clipped off a clump of the yellow witch plant flowers, and flew back, depositing it in her open hand. Then he returned to the roof and picked up a shiny rock he’d noticed earlier. Landing on the Witch’s arm, he deposited the rock and flowers in her hand, then hopped up to her shoulder to run his beak gently through her hair and taste her ribbons. Female crows liked shiny things, maybe female humans did too.
The Witch cradled his gifts in her hands as if they were precious, then he began to feel the warm glow of her affection enveloping him. She must have accepted his gifts as the communication they were. Crest stayed on her shoulder as she walked back into the cottage and placed his gifts on a little shelf with reverent care. He tilted his head to get a better view of all the other things on the shelf. A black crow feather, more shiny rocks of different colors, a tiny representation of a female human, a candle, more fresh flowers, and even a few animal bones. Despite his curiousity, Crest didn’t feel the least bit tempted to investigate the items any closer. They all almost glowed with magic, and he stayed firmly on the Witch’s shoulder.
Crest spent the next several days watching the Witch from her shoulder or a nearby perch as she moved about her daily activities. She did things to plants, spent time in her garden, digging and watering and clipping more bits of plants. She spoke to him as she did things, and soon he began to recognize a few human sounds, and understand the meanings of her twittering. He tried to speak back to her as much as possible, and he felt a sense of understanding arise between them. Perhaps this was how his Uncle had talked to her as well.
They went on long walks through the wooded portion of the valley, collecting bits of things. Crest brought her anything that caught his eye which he thought she would like, and she accepted every gift with solemn gratitude, no matter how small or inconsequential. She showed him the bushes with the best berries, and dug earthworms for him as treats. He began to worry less about letting his family down, and started simply to revel in the love and connection he had with this human.
One day, another human approached the cottage from the direction of the village at the other end of the valley. The male stopped at her garden gate and spoke politely in the human tongue to the Witch, bowing a little. Crest recognized the words for ‘valley’, ‘magic’, and ‘protection’, but not much else. He studied the…man (Crest remembered the proper word for human males now) instead, sizing him up. There didn’t seem to be any ill intent from him, nor did he seem nervous facing the Witch, though he addressed her with an air of deference. The soft off-white of his clothes reminded Crest of the sheep who surrounded the village, and the deep shiny black of the man’s plucked head looked like the sky on a starless night.
The humans talked for some time, then the man bowed again and walked away down the river-path toward his village. The Witch sat for some time in her garden, breathing slowly and staring up at the mountains with a little frown on her face. At last she rose and went inside, going straight to the corner where she stored her big wooden tub. She filled it with a mixture of water from the well and hot water from the kettle, then stepped into it, rubbing herself all over with strong flowery scents. Crest perched on the side of the tub, ruffling his feathers whenever she splashed him, and watched with his head to the side. He had never seen her immerse herself in the water like this, though it seemed similar to her nightly grooming ritual. At last she stepped out, glistening with water, and began to carefully comb some sweet oil through her hair. When she was done, she sat before her little mirror and began to braid her hair into hundreds of little braids. She tied each one with a colorful ribbon and a small metal bead she took from a box. As each bead snapped into place, Crest felt something. There was a pressure, and the sparkling tingle he associated with her magic, and then a feeling of completion.
After a while, Crest grew bored and went outside. He flew off to visit his clan, and talk to his grandmother about his experiences in the Witch’s household. He visited for some time, seeing all his family and hearing all the news of the nestlings and hunts and new trinkets found. At last he made his farewells and winged his way home in the early dusk. He almost flew into a branch as he realized that “home” felt more like the Witch’s Cottage than his parents’ nest after such a short time away.
When he reached the cottage, flying in through the open window, the Witch was changed. She now wore a simple black dress with a piece of triangular green cloth thrown over it like another skirt. Another piece of cloth, this one the deep velvety black of a summer night, was draped around her shoulders. As he flew in, she turned and greeted him, asking him a question. Crest flipped his wings, concentrating on her intent and the one word he recognized, “help”. He nearly fell over when he realized she was asking for his help, but he quickly bobbed his head in the signal for assent.
The Witch’s hair-beads clicked as she moved, and he noticed that she had far more shiny trinkets on her arms and neck and even around her waist than she usually wore. Magic fizzed around her, making his feathers prickle, and he wondered what was so important it required all this preparation. Perhaps she was asking him to help her with a big magical working at last! She gathered a few things, stones and feathers and plants, into her little foraging bag, held out her arm for him to hop onto it. He sidled up her arm to her shoulder, tasting one of her braids out of habit. The bead clacked against his beak and he let it drop.
The Witch walked along the path to the river trail and followed it out of the woods and down into the center of the valley where four large stones stood on a low hill. The Witch stepped into the middle of the stones and put down her bag. Crest looked out over Pine Valley. To the south he could see a few lights in the humans’ village beside the pass into the valley. The gloaming dusk obscured the inhabitants of the fields around it, but he knew sheep and goats slept there. Back the way they had come, the forested north end of the valley huddled like a dark cloud in the sheltering arms of the surrounding mountains. Behind it, he could just see the silvery twinkle of the great Waterfall in the starlight. His companion brought out a tiny black cauldron, placed it on a low flat rock in the center, and began to put things in and around it, chanting words as she did. Soon, she lit the items in the pot on fire, then gathered a handful of salt and began to walk around the stones, stopping at each one to say some words. Crest felt the magic rising out of the ground and surrounding the clearing, like a soap bubble. They stopped and the Witch returned to the center and stood before the burning cauldron, arms raised, and chanted more words.
The air crackled with power as she took the ribbon off two of her braids, and threaded a tiny bell on each glowing strand. Crest squawked slightly as she raised him from her shoulder and held him before her. She asked him something, holding up the ribbons, then pointing to his legs and staring deeply into his eyes. Crest tilted his head this way and that, thinking, and finally he stuck one of his feet out toward her. The Witch smiled and tied the ribbon lightly about his leg just above the foot, then the other to the other foot. Then she held him again, looking even deeper and rooting around in Crest’s very soul. This time the message was even clearer, and he barely needed the accompanying gestures. She wanted him to fly around the entire edge of the valley. He didn’t quite know why, but he was finally participating in real magic, really helping like a proper Companion should. He leaned over to taste one of her braids affectionately, and then flew off to the North. Behind him he heard the Witch begin to chant again, and felt an invisible tether connecting them.
Reaching the northern end of the valley, he perched on a crag above the thundering fall of water to rest a moment. Fluffing all his feathers out, he launched himself into the air again and began flying along the western valley wall, the bells on his ribbons tinkling brightly. Above him, the moon had risen, bright and nearly full. The soft glowing light cast his shadow on the ground, and below him wherever the shadow passed, pale ghostly magical fire sprang up. No heat rose from it and no scent of burning wood reached him. Crest flapped on, gawking below him. He’d never done any magic before. This was the Witch working through him, but still it felt odd to be creating this thing, something not of this world.
Halfway around the valley, Crest flew over the edge of the village at the pass. Glancing down, he realized the humans were all standing outside, looking back along his path at the ghostly blue flames. He had gotten so used to seeing things other creatures couldn’t from proximity to the Witch that he was a little startled to realize that though the flames were ephemeral, they were visible to ordinary humans as well. He wondered what the ritual and the flames were for. It must be something to protect the valley, like the plucked man had said. But from who or what did it need protecting? Crest shook his head, winging onward through the night. If this magic was successful he might never know what it was supposed to keep out.
The moon drifted across his back, sailing serenely through the sky as Crest labored onwards. His wings were heavy, and he panted for a bit of water, but somehow he didn’t think it would be a good idea for him to stop until he reached the waterfall again. Stretching his neck forward, he glimpsed it beyond the trees and pushed his wings. Forward UP, DOWN back. And again. The valley air had grown very still, like every creature within was holding its breath for something. Crest pushed harder, racing to close the circle of ghost-fire, some inner urge whispering Faster, Faster! in his thoughts. Forward UP, DOWN back. The waterfall thundered in his ears, drowning the heavy silence. A few more lengths and the spray sparkled on his feathers as the fire crossed over the moonlit water and joined up, creating a circle. Tired wings faltering, he flapped heavily onto a branch and panted with his beak open, feeling satisfied. This was the end of the night’s magic, he felt it in the way the link with the Witch had faded from a tether to a mere thread.
Gradually his wings felt less like large rocks and more like useful flying tools, and just as he was pondering whether to go stick his head in the stream or fly back to the Witch’s cottage, an echoing shriek of rage split the night. Crest shot into the air, panicked, followed by the rest of the Clan from around the forest. He cast about for the source of the noise, and saw flashes of light at the other end of the valley. They seemed to be the source, and Crest stared at them, beak gaping. Some sort of flying, clawed, fanged, unnatural creature beat against an invisible barrier above the pale flames by the waterfall. He spun in the air, unsure of what to do. His Grandmother split from the swirling, frightened flock to join him.
“What is happening, Witch’s Companion? What are those things?” There was real fear in her voice.
Crest clicked his beak. “I don’t know. The Witch is protecting the valley, and so am I. I must go to her.” He jabbed his beak at the flying monsters outlined by the moon. “If those things make it past the flames, you and the Clan must slow them down! They are invaders of the territory, and must not be allowed to reach the center of the valley!”
Grandmother veered away, buffeting his head with gentle respect as she returned to the flock and began issuing instructions. Crest left them behind as he made his weary way back down the valley to the stone circle. He landed heavily on the central rock, wings drooping, and looked about for the Witch. The cauldron still burned brightly, now filled with sticks and leaves and something pungent. A flame crackled skyward, illuminating the Witch’s face as she looked to the south where some outside magic still clashed against the barrier they had raised only just in time. Several of her braids were undone now, the loose hair floating about her face in soft twists. She had another in her hand, pulling it slowly out, the other hand raised to the sky. Crest looked up, gaping at a giant Witch made of smoke which balanced on the woman’s hand. The smoke-witch bent and smacked at flashes of magic with her huge hands, swatting them into nothingness with ease. The real Witch frowned in concentration, her voice hoarse from chanting and her clothes fluttering in a wind Crest could not feel.
Crest hunched his wings, fear slicking his feathers. The Witch was far more powerful than he had ever dreamed, and she battled with something equally powerful. Who was he to defy that attacker? Just a silly little fledgling, not a properly trained Witch’s Companion. His heart thudded, shaking the feathers of his breast. He would be crushed between these two forces, if he didn’t get out of here immediately.
A spark of baleful reddish-black magic struck the smoke-witch in the right hand, and the Witch cried out in pain, her hand dropping away from the braid she had been releasing. Tears of pain gathered in her eyes, and the smoke-witch faltered for a moment. The magic overhead pressed forward trying to pursue the advantage. Crest threw himself onto the Witch’s shoulder and began using his strong beak to continue releasing the braid. The power in it coursed through him and into the smoke-witch, making her stand forward strongly again in the battle.
Power crackled through the air, missed spells splashing against the surrounding mountains. Black scars appeared where they hit, but no magic touched within the circle of blue fire. The fight raged on for an eternity, though the moon had barely moved by the time the flickers of baleful magic had faded to nothing and the hostile presence fled from the battle howling in frustration and pain. Slowly, moving as if every bone in her body ached, the Witch absorbed the smoke back into her hand and extinguished the fiery cauldron. She shrank onto the ground, leaning against one of the standing stones, and placed Crest securely on her lap. He was grateful. After the long flight and the tense battle, he was afraid he might fall off her shoulder. She stroked his head slowly, and spoke to him in a roughened voice. Crest gaped as he realized he understood all her words.
“Thank you Master Crow. Your aid turned this battle. I did not think the Warlock would be so powerful. But we repelled him this time, perhaps it will be some time before he tries again. And next time we will be better prepared. I have much to teach you still. But for tonight, we should rest.”
Crest preened while she praised him, then tugged at her clothing affectionately. As she stroked his head, he realized he had truly become the Witch’s Companion. Tonight he had cast magic with her, aided her in a deadly fight, and survived a fearful battle. Tomorrow another battle might come, but for tonight, as the Witch’s snores filled the air, Crest the Witch’s Companion was content to call her lap home.