From the author: I love fairy tales and love creating new ones! This one was published in Scribal Tales magazine in 2006
Sarah hurried beneath skeletal branches on the forest path crisp with fallen leaves. Naked trees filled with ravens, their black feathers fleshing out boughs with new, volatile life. The small cottage of thatched-roofed and faded wood circled by tall, ghostly birch trees finally appeared. Sitting outside on a stool of twisted wood, Agnes grinned broadly, her wispy, gray hair haphazardly pinned and face shriveled with wrinkles.
“Hello, Sarah,” said old Agnes.
“Good afternoon, Agnes. Sorry I’m so late! Mildred kept me home with one task after another until it was almost too late to come.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I brought you food!” Sarah said, keeping her voice above the ravens.
“That’s a good girl,” the elder cooed, her arthritic hands clutching her tattered wrap woven from multi-colored threads. “Come, give us a hug.” Sarah put down her basket and embraced her. Sweet Sarah,” Agnes laughed, voice worn by decades of use. “Fix some tea to warm the blood before you return to the shrew.”
Inside the cottage, Sarah removed her red cloak. A narrow bed covered with a worn quilt of faded pink roses gave color to the dim interior, sparsely decorated with an oak chest, a chair, a table crowded with dried herbs and clay pots smelling of potent earth. Sarah felt at home here. It was her home for years after her mother’s death until she began to work in the village.
Sarah latched the shutters closed, “You’ll catch cold in this chill.”
Agnes chuckled, “I know the treatments for sickness, child. I taught you, remember? I’ve survived countless winters without a sniffle.”
Sarah unpacked the basket, “I brought bread, already cut so you wouldn’t have to slice it. Let’s see, I snatched a jar of jam, and there’s bacon too.”
“Sweet girl, you take good care of me. None of the villagers gives me charity. They fear the woods.”
“I prefer the woods to the village,” said Sarah, putting the kettle on the hearthstone. She opened the jar of jam, for Agnes loved sweets. She crumbled dried tea leaves into the clay cups and checked the honey pot, finding it nearly empty. “You're low on honey. I’ll bring some next time. I’ll add some ginger.”
Agnes took a hunk of bread and dipped it into the blackberry jam. “You need a man with love warm as coals, instead of fretting over an old widow.”
“There isn’t a man in this village that I’d welcome,” Sarah frowned, and handed her a mug of steaming tea.
Agnes nodded, “It’s the first day of winter. Potent magic is in the air. Make a wish. Maybe the spirits will listen.”
“Talk of spirits brings trouble,” Sarah cautioned.
“In the old days people revered things of nature, but no more.”
“Folks don’t care about that now,” she replied, stoking the fire with care. Sarah sipped her tea, feeling its warmth inside her body. “Thulen visited last week. I had to tell him I didn’t want to marry him.”
“Bet he didn’t take that well!” Agnes replied seriously.
“No, he didn’t. I don’t love him. Why can’t a woman just be free?”
Agnes laughed, “Because the human cages all it sees and all it can possess. The beauty of a free creature is a curse to them.” She sipped her tea and nibbled at her jam smeared loaf, “You have a real beauty, Sarah.”
She shook her head, “I’m just ordinary.”
“No,” Agnes insisted. “Your face is fair, with deep blue eyes, long walnut brown curls and creamy skin. You deserve a prince.”
“There are no princes here. Only farmers and tradesmen.” Sarah glanced outside, “Oh, it’s dark! I better go, else I’ll get a thrashing.” she said, gulping the last of her tea and hugging Agnes.
“Perhaps someday you’ll meet a man with a heart wild as yours.”
“You’re a dreamer, Agnes. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Sarah ran the whole way home. Breathless, she made it home to find Mildred waiting by the door with a wooden spoon. She whacked her on the shoulder, “You foolish girl! Late again! I told you not to see that old woman today! The supper needs fixing.”
“I’m sorry,” she answered with practiced meekness. “Agnes is too old to care for herself completely, and I just brought her some bread and jam.”
“My jam,” Mildred snapped. “I made that for us this winter.”
“I made it, you old fat sow,” Sarah thought, keeping her face neutral. She did not argue or complain; she learned a long time ago to live inside her head. Mildred was a bitter widow, despite the fortune of a house and gold. Her husband had been a kind man and insisted they give Sarah a position when the old housekeeper died.
Sarah ate supper alone in the kitchen; it was her custom since Mildred did not want a common servant eating with her. Mildred called her into the dining room, using a strangely pleasant tone. When she discovered that Thulen sat at the table, Sarah marched back into the kitchen. Mildred grabbed her long braid to keep her from bolting out the back door.
Her servant mask evaporated. “Why is he here?” she confronted Mildred.
“You’re a fool to turn down an offer from a man who’s your better. I invited him to smooth things over. You should be grateful.”
“What!” Sarah cried. “He’s a miller’s son. No better or worse than me!”
“His father is a widower too. He asked me to smooth things. He is well off and may want to marry again. You think I want to wear black forever?”
Sarah fumed over the selfishness of it all. Mildred already put one husband in a grave, and now wanted another. Sarah kept her tongue and she readied the tea, but simmered inside with anger. Thulen smelled like a goat. His dour face seldom felt soap and water. Her future as Thulen’s wife assaulted her imagination, irritating years raising his brats, sharing his bed.
“Sarah, where’s the tea?” Mildred called impatiently, bursting her morose thoughts.
Sarah entered the dining room, but irascible thoughts bubbled in her head until she dropped Mildred’s favorite teapot on the table, chipping the spout, and cried, “No!”
Mildred snapped at her, “You slut! What have you done?”
“Thulen, I’ve already rejected your proposal. I refuse to be sold into matrimonial slavery. I’m sorry. I can never marry you.”
Thulen’s glared angrily at her, “I’d have thought your mother’s shameful curse would make you more grateful to marry a man like me.”
The cruel reference to her mother’s tragedy stunned Sarah. “Get out!” Sarah replied bitterly.
“Go to your room!” Mildred ordered. “Pray for humility!”
Sarah fled to the safety of her tiny room at the back of the kitchen. Her mother’s fate was a deep, emotional gash in her heart that never healed. Her mother was accused of witchcraft when Sarah was only nine. They burned her. Sarah’s father did nothing to stop it; he too stood with the accusers. They made Sarah watch as a lesson. That burning place at the edge of town was a bitter haunt she avoided. Her father left the village the next day. Bereft, only Agnes took in the girl, a recent widow who moved to the village. Sarah should leave, but she had nowhere to go.
The next morning, she woke to find Mildred’s sour face staring down. “Leave this house, you ungrateful slut. Starve for all I care! I took you in and gave you work when no one else would. A cursed girl with a witch mother.”
Sarah threw off the thin blanket, “I would sooner starve than stay here. My mother was not a witch! She was decent and kind. You’re the evil one!”
Mildred slapped her harshly. Sarah slapped her back. Stunned that such a lowly servant could retaliate, Mildred fled the miniscule room. Sarah quickly packed her meager belongings and precious purse of coins she saved. She left the house feeling a burden lift off her soul as she headed toward the forest. Her breath fogged with cold, her face and fingers stiffened with bitter chill, but even that felt good. Agnes would welcome her. The overcast sky was starless now, though the fat moon still hovered above. Her focus on sky instead of solid ground resulted in tripping, falling face down to the frost-tipped grass.
“Oh, bother,” she winced, trying not to curse. Her ankle throbbed and she knew she twisted it badly. “Now what do I do?”
“You should take care,” said a strange, masculine voice.
A young stranger walked with feral grace toward her, his black hair whipped by wind, dark brown eyes intense in his youthful face. Garbed in thick brown trousers, boots, and a white linen shirt beneath his long black coat, he carried simple canvas haversack across his shoulders. Still, he was a stranger, and she should recoil with suspicion. What was she going to do…hop away? She rubbed her sore ankle, and stiffened when he knelt down, taking her foot in his hands without permission.
“How dare you!”
“Relax, I just want to see if it’s broken,” he replied calmly, and examined her bones without modesty or apology. “Where were you heading in such a hurry?”
Sarah bit her lip, for her ankle hurt but refused to reveal her pain. “To see a friend. I know it’s not broken. I know about healing. Old Agnes taught me-”
“You’re pretty vocal to a stranger,” he laughed. “Old woodsy women usually have the best knowledge of herbs. My name is Rorin. If I’m going to touch you intimately, it might be best if we are acquainted.”
“I’m Sarah,” she stammered. She flushed at the word ‘intimately.’
“It’s not broken, though it’s sprained. I’ll take you home.”
“That’s not necessary,” she replied, standing up, keeping the weight off her injured leg, knowing she looked like a tilted scarecrow.
“You’re not very tall, are you?” he remarked.
“I’m big enough.” She pondered how to hobble away with dignity, but her ankle sent a wave of pain and she collapsed into his arms.
“You’re a foolish and stubborn girl,” he retorted.
“I’ve been told that, in nastier terms.”
“Pardon?” he asked.
He threw her heavy satchel over his shoulder and picked her up with ease. “Well, where do we go, Mistress Sarah?”
“Follow the trail. It’s not that far,” she relented.
They reached Agnes’s cottage in a short time. Sarah held onto Rorin, who smelled sweetly of ripe earth and hay.
“Should I just drop you, or will you invite me in?”
“I guess I will invite you,” she stammered.
Agnes opened the door with a surprised grin, “Well, looks like you found a warm man, Sarah.”
“Pardon?” Rorin asked.
“Never mind,” Sarah blanched, embarrassed.
“Who is this fine stallion?” Agnes inquired, waving them inside.
He shifted her in his arms and entered, “My name is Rorin. I’m new to the village. Miss Sarah hurt her ankle.”
“I’m Agnes. Put her on the bed. I wasn’t expecting you for a few days, girl.”
“Mildred threw me out. I refused Thulen again and that angered her for some reason.”
“Who’s Thulen?” Rorin asked with pointed interest.
“An oaf,” Agnes said. “Not like you.”
“I speak only God’s truth,” the old woman laughed.
Sarah sighed, “I twisted my ankle on the way here. Rorin found me and was kind enough to carry me here. I’m sorry, Agnes-”
“Hush, child,” Agnes clucked, “You can always stay with me. I never liked that old shrew. Would the young man, what’s your name?”
“Be a good boy and put more wood on the fire while I make a poultice.” Agnes uncorked her jars of herbs and added, “Stoke the fire good, boy. I’ll make us all some tea.”
“That would be welcome,” Rorin agreed. “Folks don’t like strangers, so I’m grateful for your kindness.”
They enjoyed hot tea and toasted bread, with a generous dollop of jam. Rorin helped Sarah unlace her shoe and applied cold clothes to her ankle. Agnes fussed and gave her a bitter dose of willow bark tea for the swelling and pain.
When they finished their refreshments, Rorin stood and bowed. “I’ll be taking my leave then,” he said. “I’ll stop by tomorrow, Sarah. If that be welcome, of course.”
“Yes,” Sarah whispered. “Thank you for helping me today. Are you visiting family or hunting for work, if I may ask?”
Rorin lifted his haversack and replied, “I’m a jack of trades. I can train and shoe horses, carpentry, planting, whatever is needed.”
“The stables may need someone. Ask for Robert. He’s the stable master.”
He bowed politely. “Until then. Thank you for your hospitality. Stay off that foot,” he teased and walked out the door.
Sarah blushed when she recalled the warmth of his arms.
The next several days brought strange fortune to Sarah. Never comfortable with the village folk, she happily stayed with Agnes. After her ankle healed, she kept their home tidy and cooked for her. Nearly every day Rorin visited, often bringing with him some little token or something to eat, for which he would be invited to stay for supper. Sarah had some money saved. Her thrift meant she and Agnes could eat this winter. After that, she would think of something. She began to look forward to Rorin’s visits. Perhaps because he was not one of the seed of the folk that murdered her mother made him welcome to her.
One afternoon, they were walking by the river. The winter snow glistened and the river was iced like a cake. Rorin took her hand, saying gently, “You’re wild, Sarah. I would never change that. I’m a bit wild too.”
“Then we are matched,” she answered softly.
“I love you, Sarah. I know about things…Agnes told me everything.”
Sarah stopped, “I love you too, Rorin. But I-”
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t let the past hurt you anymore. I will always care for you. I will never leave you. I will always protect and shelter you. I have a bit of money saved and there is a little house near the river that’s vacant. I have permission to rent it. It’s only two rooms and is a shambles now, but we could fix it together. What I’m asking, is…Sarah, will you be my wife?”
Her fear of intimacy rose like a fury, and she stiffened for a moment, but her love for Rorin drove it back. She could think of no one else in this world she could marry. “Yes,” she answered. “I will marry you, Rorin.”
He laughed with joy, lifted her in his arms and spun around. All the pain and fear melted. Sarah was happy. Overhead, the ravens began their nightly gathering in the trees. Sarah did not hear their raucous cries.
They married the next Sabbath. Agnes stood witness at their side. Sarah wore a wreath of winter leaves and berries around her long dark hair like a crown. A simple red ribbon decorated her neck. Her best dress served as her bridal gown; a full red skirt, a blue brocade vest trimmed laced with red ribbons, and a white blouse scented with lavender for the occasion. Rorin, in his dark coat brushed clean, gave her a wedding ring of strange make, a ring of oak, beautifully made with delicate runes carved into the band. He gave her an identical band of his size to put on his finger. The priest made no remark, but frowned, for the ring was of old pagan fashion. He sternly blessed them and pronounced them man and wife. At their private wedding feast in Agnes’s cottage, Sarah cut the golden cake covered with snowy, sugary icing, and shared the first piece with her husband and toasted each other with honey wine. The newly bonded couple walked to the groom’s house at the edge of the river.
Alone at last with her husband, she stood in the middle of the small house. He lit a fire in the hearth, casting a warm glow.
“I don’t know much about being a wife,” she said nervously.
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t know much about being a husband. We will learn together.”
“The rings are beautiful,” she said, looking at it in the firelight.
“I made them as our wedding gift to each other. I’m happy they please you.”
“What do I do now?” she whispered.
“Enjoy the night” he whispered in her ear, and removed her winter cloak and tossed it on the faded oak table. “Do you trust me, Sarah?”
“Yes,” she said and turned to face him, “I trust you, Rorin.”
He lifted her hand and kissed her fingertips, “Good. I trust you too. I must be alone for a time each morning. It’s just my custom.” He stroked her hair, “Do you love me, Sarah? Truly?”
“Yes, Rorin. Truly, I do,” she whispered shyly.
“Then all will be well.”
He carried her to the bed, where his gentleness turned into urgency and passion. But he was careful with her, and she experienced joy with their union. She was secure in his arms throughout the night, until dawn came and he left their bed. She waited until her returned, which was a short time, scarcely half an hour passed. A man needed his privacy for some things, she assumed. She needed it each month with her blood time.
They quickly adjusted to married life. Their first morning together, she burnt the bacon and the oatmeal was lumpy. She heavily it laced with honey to cover it up. They laughed about it. She continued to visit Agnes, wrapped in tattered quilts and shawls, happily dozing before her fire. She avoided the village, except for her weekly sojourns to buy food. She hated it because sometimes she crossed the path of Thulen, who treated her like offal now. Still, Sarah walked on a cloud during this time. She often touched her wedding ring of oak, which she treasured more than any golden band. It was beautifully wrought, made by his clever hands with love.
Early one morning, insistent pounding at the door frightened her awake. She was alone in her bed, for Rorin had gone out a short time ago, as was his usual morning ritual. Thulen’s drunken, slurred voice deepened her fears. Angry at his rudeness, she jumped out of bed and covering her night shift with a blanket, and cracked opened the door.
“What are you doing here, Thulen? Go away.”
“Where’s your husband?” he demanded.
“None of your business,” she spat back. He reeked of ale and sweat. “Go home and sleep it off Thulen.” She tried to close the door, but he blocked it with his body.
“Stupid wench. He’s not what he seems.”
“Go away!” she cried. “You’re drunk.”
“Witch!” he shouted. “There’s witchcraft here. You’ll both burn for it,” he taunted, grabbing her arm. “Just like your mother!”
She paled at his harsh threat, resurrecting her childhood terrors to reality.
A firm hand pulled Thulen from the doorway. Rorin spun Thulen around and struck him hard with his fists. Thulen wheeled and fell. Rorin dragged the half-conscious Thulen down the steps away from the house. He stood over Thulen, “Never come here again! Never touch my wife!” Rorin swore.
Thulen wiped his bloody face on his sleeve and staggered away. “You’ll be sorry!” he promised and stumbled away.
“Rorin, what’s happened?” Sarah cried.
He pulled her close, gently stroking her hair. “Nothing. Just the rants of a drunk.” Then he asked seriously, “If we were to leave here, would you be upset?”
“No! If Thulen knows something to threaten you, we must leave. Thulen will make trouble for you if we stay now anyway.”
“We’ll go today then. Pack some clothes and food. We will take only what we can carry.”
They ran into the house and stuffed their satchels with a few clothes. She packed food into a sack, a loaf of bread, cheese, meat, a few precious apples. He filled a water bag and rolled their two warmest wool blankets to carry. Panic delayed thought. Action was her vocation now. They put out the hearth fire. The morning was bright and snow did not threaten to fall. They could make good time before sunset.
They walked along the riverbed a short time later. “Why are we stopping here?” Sarah asked.
He crouched down by an old willow and began to dig in a pile of leaves. “There is something I need. I will explain on the road.” He began to panic, eyes and hands searching in desperation. “It’s gone,” he said.
“Looking for this?” Thulen asked coarsely, holding a large sack in his hand. Three of Thulen’s of his gruff-looking friends stepped across their path. They carried clubs and torches. They looked murderous.
“Run, Sarah,” Rorin cried.
They tried to flee, but they tackled Rorin and struck him hard across the back with a club, and shoved him to the ground with their boot heels.
Sarah turned back and screamed, “Don’t touch him, you monsters! Leave us alone!”
Rorin shouted, “Go, Sarah!”
“Not without you,” she replied grimly.
“Oh, you can’t leave, witch,” Thulen grinned maliciously. He grabbed her by the hair, “I got a wedding gift for you.” He opened the bag and pulled out a cloak of black feathers. “See that? That’s witchcraft! He uses it to become a man!” Thulen shouted. “I saw him at the river take it from beneath a pile of buried leaves and when he put it on, he changed into a raven. He flew in the skies until the sun was high. Then he came back to earth, and changed back into a man. He cast off his cloak of sorcerous feathers and hid them.”
“I don’t believe you!” she protested.
“Then let’s see what fire does to his magic,” Thulen sneered. He threw the feathered cloak on the ground and dropped a torch on it. Inky feathers flamed brightly with curling smoke.
Rorin moaned, “I’m sorry, Sarah. I love you. Believe that! I did it for you! I had to fly once each dawn to maintain my human form!”
Terror fused Sarah with paralysis, for as she witnessed the burning of the raven feather cloak, her husband began to change. It was magic. Cruel magic. Rorin cried out briefly, and then his raven shape took hold. He looked at her once more with the eyes of a raven before taking flight.
“Kill it!” cried Thulen, unprepared for its escape. The raven fled high into the sky.
Abandoned again, Sarah curled into a ball and wailed with grief. All that was left was a smoldering pile of feathers.
“Don’t cry for your loss,” Thulen sneered. He roughly tied her up. “Witches burn too. You’ll be united in Hell.”
Sarah awaited death in the makeshift jail cell of the church’s cloak room. They figured being imprisoned in a holy place would keep her weak, though being bound hand and foot was the reason. She could not even cry now. Her mother’s fate was her own, as she always feared. The town did not even give her a trial. The word of Thulen and his thugs condemned her.
The old priest opened the door. His look of pity turned her stomach. “Do you want to confess, my child? It would go easier on you if you do. I cannot sanction your entry in heaven unless you confess your evil.”
“Is that what you told my poor mother?”
“She was a witch and suffered purification by fire. Confess and accept your just fate.”
She lifted her chin defiantly, “I confess nothing. I don’t know what my husband was, but Rorin was good. What you are about to do to me is evil. I no longer worship your cruel god. Burn me and be done with it.”
“Then you are damned,” the priest replied with sorrow.
“No, you are damned!” Sarah replied darkly.
He closed the door and Sarah leaned against the wall to weep.
At sunrise they came for her. No last meal or a sip of water was offered in compassion. Just two burly men that dragged her from her tiny cell. They cut the bonds on her feet so she could walk to her doom, though her hands remained tied. She was numb those first moments, and walked shakily until the feeling came back into her legs. By the time they exited the building, Sarah managed to walk with dignity out the church door. The whole village gathered for the festival of consecrated murder. Little stakes with tiny dolls bound by twine were sold by ghoulish hawkers to God-fearing folks that reveled in death. A rough push against her back propelled her doomed walk. Her guards carried pitch forks and clubs to prevent against the escape of one tiny woman.
The sun rose in a clear blue sky as a benediction of her last morning of life. The brisk cold did not even chill her as she walked to the edge of the village. She would feel heat soon enough. She stopped for a heartbeat when she saw the place of execution, in the same spot as her poor mother’s. The stake was tall, made from a tree felled just for this occasion; the boughs sawed off and added to the kindling for the fire. The old priest was already there, begging her to recant. She ignored him.
Strong hands forced her up the small ladder to the stake. They tied her securely to the wood with rawhide, the strips cutting into her flesh. The bark was rough and still smelled of green life that would soon be dead with her. She imagined the tree would be offended to be so ill used. The crowd gathered, some laughing at her. Many of the same faces that cheered her mother’s death circled the altar of death now. Thulen and Mildred were close, holding torches to light the fire. She mourned her oaken ring, which would perish. Nothing could survive this bitter end.
In the distance, away from the crowd, old Agnes, hunched over her cane, grasping a shawl around her shoulders, cursed the village folk with raised fist. Sarah knew they paid her no attention. Poor Agnes. I shall miss her, she thought. And Rorin. Oh, Rorin, where did you go?
They lit the sticks of her pyre and cheered the flames rising. Tears of loss and fear poured from Sarah’s eyes, but this moisture would not save her from this fire.
Then the ravens came in such great numbers the spectators all looked up to witness the strange sight. The people feared the oddity. Perhaps her witch spell was upon the ravens, they cried, feeding the burn with more kindling. The ravens landed to earth, black feathers shimmering with magic, transforming into men. No, not just men-warriors. Garbed in black and silver armor, wearing cloaks of raven feathers, they brandished swords of steel, marched toward her despite the growing flames, and enraged villagers. She could barely see them now, the orange embers bursting into cruel fire where Sarah was captive. Smoke filled her lungs and stung her eyes. Was she truly mad now?
Then she saw Rorin-dressed like a prince, blade bright in his hand, a crown of silver on his proud head. He spoke in a strange tongue, and rain began to pour. Rorin, flanked by his warriors, mounted the smoldering pile of sticks to reach her. Rorin cut her free from the stake and carried away. The people fled the violent storm. A few vigilant ones fought only to be slain by the raven warriors. Thulen was among them, dead on the icy ground from Rorin’s strike.
“How?” Sarah finally asked, rescued and safe in Rorin’s strong arms.
“We are raven folk from the Otherworld, though we cross into your world at times since the earth was made.” He gently wiped her brow. “In our realm we are man or bird. We are what we choose to be. I chose to be a man, for you.”
“I thought I was dead,” she coughed.
“No, forgive me. Another cloak to travel the worlds had to be woven in my realm. I came as soon as I could. Come with me, Sarah. We can live in peace there, where it is always spring and death does not touch our kind. I never asked before, because as a human you may not have wanted it.”
“I do want it. This world is full of hatred and sorrow.”
Rorin nodded, “This land is done with magic too. We shall never return.”
“What of poor Agnes?” Sarah asked sadly.
“Look,” he said, pointing toward the ancient lady at the edge of the village.
Agnes stood straight, the crippling infirmity of age shed from her now to reveal a beautiful woman in a cloak of raven feathers.
“Go now,” Agnes cried. “We shall fly home together,” and with ethereal grace she transformed into a raven.
“She is one of you,” Sarah gasped.
“She always was. Agnes was your guardian while you stayed in this world until time saw fit to make you mine.”
“Gladly will I go with you, Rorin. I love you.” She wept, leaning against his shoulder, “You came back for me.”
“Little Sarah, I would never abandon you.” He kissed her gently, wrapping his arms around her. A hazy feeling took over her body as his arms became wings. She too changed, with air-filled bones and feathers transforming her. Together they spun upward toward the sky, winged and sky born. The other warriors followed them to the air. Together they crossed into another land man lost a long time ago.
“We are together now,” Rorin said happily. “Forever.”
“It is only right,” Sarah answered. “After all, ravens mate for life.”
This story originally appeared in Scribal Tales.