Ravensdaughter’s Tale

Ravensdaughter liked Novembers best. That was when the rains came and slicked the leaves down into a tar on the rooftops and made the whole world smell like wet. She’d get trapped in her dry spot in the bell tower days at a time, wrapped up in the blanket the miller had left out for her, but when it was over, those were the best days. Like today.

Ravensdaughter held her arms out like a scarecrow as she balance-walked along the backbone of the roof between the keep and the kitchens. The cold was only just enough to pierce her dress and make her fingers sting yet, but it was winter enough that the sky was cold and gray as the castle stones. The sound of one of the kitchen boys tending to the pigs drifted up from the courtyard. She laughed. The slates on the roof were still wet from last night’s rain, but she never missed a step.

She knew the castle roofs better than the humans ever would. She’d named every gargoyle. In the summers she’d climbed the rafters of the bell tower and watched the cuckoos come and lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. She knew how you couldn’t trust the gatehouse, since its roof was rotten with moss and about to fall in, but the roof over the kitchens was a good place. There was a good shot there for throwing bits of slate at the kitchen boys when they went out. They’d put their hands over their heads and beg her not to hex them, so naturally she’d dance back and forth and yell ooga-booga until they screamed and ran back inside. The humans all smelled funny, anyway.

Ravensdaughter knelt on the slates and ducked her head under the kitchen eaves. Down on the windowsill there was an offering: a bundle wrapped up in cloth on top of a plate. The kitchen lady was trying to get her to leave the boys alone again. Just in case, the shutters were locked up tight with an iron horseshoe to keep Ravensdaughter out.

Ravensdaughter grinned, then swung her legs over the gutter and dropped down to the sill. She hoped it was a saucer of milk in there. Or a bit of fish, raw, the way she liked it. Or even bread. Her fingers were stiff with the cold, but she managed to undo the knots in the bundle.

A dolly? Like the little human girls played with? Why? She crouched there holding the dolly by the neck, brow furrowed. It wasn’t even a very good one. The stitching was all lumpy.

There’d been a dolly in the little house in the village.

Burnt porridge and Bible sermons. That sour human stink everywhere. Fake brothers and sisters and her fake parents all crammed into one wooden room. That was before her ears had grown in pointy and Fake Mother had run her out of the house with a broomstick. Ravensdaughter picked at the dolly’s frayed-yarn hair. Back when everybody thought she was a little human girl.

Changeling, people whispered. Wild girl. Look at those ears.

She threw the dolly down and leapt back onto the roof.

The castle folk all left food out for her because they were afraid of her, but taking things from Dr. Beadle was tricky. Somehow he always seemed to know her favorites. Rose petals when they were in season, sometimes even spiders. He’d leave the plate out on the balcony outside his workroom, then he’d go inside and pretend he wasn’t looking. If she got too close, he’d try and do things like teach her how to read. So it wasn’t really her fault when she got caught.

She’d climbed down to the balcony to see what he’d left for her this time, and there was Doctor-Man. With a jar of honey. She grabbed for it, but he swiped it away and the next thing she knew he’d jammed a sweater down over her head. She shrieked and twisted but he was stronger than her and forced her head and arms into the right holes. He was touching her! It wasn’t allowed!

Once her head was clear she could see well enough to kick him in the shins. He grunted and she headed for the railing.

“Ravensdaughter!” Doctor-man looked sort of sad as he reached for her, but she’d already gotten a foothold on the rails. A grab for the gutter and she was up and out of there.

She fumed as she hauled herself onto the roof over Doctor-Man’s room. She’d thought she kind of liked him because he left spiders out for her. But he’d touched her. It wasn’t allowed.

She’d show all of them. Someday her magic would come to her, and then the fairies would come and take her away to the hollow hill where she was born. There’d be midnight revels and dewdrop cups instead of all these stupid people who couldn’t tell a toad from a toadstool.

“I hate you!” she leaned over the gutter and yelled.

But the sweater did keep out the chill. Fine, then, she’d wear it. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.

She was going to go and play with the gargoyles.

Ravensdaughter knew she was the only one who knew the gargoyles’ secret. They looked like they were just statues. Statues of gnarled things, goats with snakes’ heads and birds with cloven feet, frozen on every rooftop from the chapel to the west tower. Some of them held up claws or fins to shield their eyes from something unseen. Every single one of them had a look of terror on its face. To Ravensdaughter, the reason was obvious. They were alive. Sometime long ago, a basilisk or a gargoyle slayer had come here and frozen the poor things into stone. When she got her magic, she was going to free them.

Ravensdaughter gathered herself together, then dashed up to the ridge and balanced along it with her arms out. She was headed south, towards the bell tower. November days were good for walking among the gargoyles. She’d peel away the bits of leaves that had gotten caught in the crevices, rub their poor frosted paws to warm them. And she’d tell them their names so they wouldn’t forget. Green Man and Two-Face, Haberdasher and Horned Toad. But of all of them, Sir Scott of the bell tower was her favorite.

She ran a little further, then grabbed one of Two-Face’s horns and pulled herself up onto his back. She jumped when something made a soft noise behind her.

Somehow a drab little human girl had gotten up onto her roof and was standing there in the middle of it. She looked almost the exact same age as Ravensdaughter, but she had brown hair instead of Ravensdaughter’s black, and brown homespun clothes instead of Ravensdaughter’s red tatters. Most important, the girl’s ears were rounded — human ears.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” Ravensdaughter cried. It was the first thing that popped into her head.

The girl stepped forward. She held her hand out a little, as if she wasn’t quite sure whether she wanted to offer it or not. “I’m Beth.”

“I don’t care what your name is. Didn’t anybody tell you this is my roof and these are my gargoyles? I’m the changeling! Arr!” She stretched her arms over her head and stood on her tiptoes, but Beth still didn’t run away.

“I’m not afraid of you.”

Well, fine. Maybe the girl was halfwitted. Ravensdaughter folded her arms. “If you won’t go away, you can go play over there and I’ll play over here. You smell like human.”

She pointed. Beth looked hurt, but she went over to the far end of the roof and sat down. Then she folded her hands and watched her. Ravensdaughter gritted her teeth. Didn’t she have something else she was supposed to be doing, like looking after the pigs or playing with dollies like all the other children did?

“Is your name really Ravensdaughter?” Beth said.

Ravensdaughter pointedly ignored her. “Pah! The girl doesn’t get it,” she said into Two-Face’s ear. “I picked the name out for myself. It’s a fairy name. My real parents are fairies, and as soon as my magic grows in they’re going to take me away from this place that’s full of iron and stinks. We should hex her to make her go away, shouldn’t we, Two-Face?” She leaned in closer, but made sure Beth could still hear. “Oh, yes, if only I had my magic, I’d hex ice down her shirt and make her hear mice chasing her everywhere she went. She wouldn’t like that, would she? Then she’d leave me alone.”

Ravensdaughter looked up to check the effect. Beth was rapt. “I want to see a hex!”

Ravensdaughter scratched her head.

“Please, won’t you turn me into a frog and then turn me back? I want to see magic!”

Somehow the ooga booga dance she gave to the kitchen boys wasn’t going to be enough. Ravensdaughter suddenly felt trapped.

“I can’t actually do anything yet!” she blurted, and fled.

Quick as a squirrel she found all the footholds in the stone and the vines and scurried up to her dry spot in the bell tower. First the dolly and the sweater and now this — it was turning out to be a bad day. She needed to sit and think. She squatted down and leaned her head against Sir Scott’s foreleg. There was a storm coming in. From way up here she could see clouds pass in and out over the sun, casting moving shadows over the roofs of the village.

And then there was that infernal voice again.

“Why do you talk to gargoyles?” Beth shouted.

Ravensdaughter scooted to the end of her ledge and looked down. There was Beth on the roof below this one, rumpled but happy. She waved.

What was she supposed to do to make Beth go away? The girl headed for the bell tower stairs and Ravensdaughter rubbed her head. There was a magic spell that kept her separate like the gargoyles. Alone. She had to stay fey so the fairies could find her when the time was come. If she got too close to the humans, she might turn into one of them.

She glared up at Sir Scott. “Why don’t you do something about it?” Of course, he didn’t answer.

When Beth got to the top of the stairs, Ravensdaughter backed off to the far end of the ledge so the tower’s bells were between them. Keep away, she thought. Don’t let her touch you. Don’t even talk to her. But ultimately the need to show off got the better of her.

“They’re not really gargoyles,” she said. “They’re people. Something froze them a long time ago to keep back the magic.”

Beth nodded gravely, as if she understood. “How do you undo it?”

Ravensdaughter expected Beth not to believe her, or at least to be surprised. This was … odd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Nobody knows. It’s been hundreds of years, and nobody’s figured it out.” Since she was supposed to be the expert, she needed to say something more. “I think we have to find their hearts.”

Beth came forward and dropped her ear to Sir Scott’s side. Ravensdaughter bared her teeth, and Beth backed away quickly.

“We’ve got to break the spell, Ravensdaughter.”

Ravensdaughter thought about this. “Okay, you can touch him, but be careful. He’s my gargoyle.”

Beth pressed her hands against Sir Scott’s flank and listened. Ravensdaughter watched for a little while, then she leaned in to listen, too. After all, she was the gargoyle expert. She shut her eyes tight and tried to feel every vein and flake in the stone.

“Sir Scott, you’ve got to wake up now. We know you’ve been in there a long time, but it’s time to come out. You can do it. Can you hear us? Wake up!”

And then something in the world shifted. The bell tower and the castle and the village, they were all still out there, as far as she could tell, but they weren’t real somehow. The stone under Ravensdaughter’s hands was alive. She could see into it, and there was something in there that didn’t belong in a statue. There was no sound, no color, no texture to it, just the sense of a sleeping man. When her mind touched him, he mumbled and rolled over.

Ravensdaughter gasped and opened her eyes. Her heart pounded like she’d just run all the way from the east tower to the gatehouse. From the look on Beth’s face, the other girl had felt the same thing.

“Let’s hold hands for more power,” Beth said.

“No!” Ravensdaughter yanked her hand away from her.

Beth looked hurt. Ravensdaughter glared back, but Beth wouldn’t back down. Red rags standing off against drab homespun. Beth wasn’t going away, and they still had to wake the gargoyle, so Ravensdaughter was going to have to think of something.

“We have to get higher,” Ravensdaughter said. “Then if we yell loud enough, all the gargoyles can hear us.”

She pointed upward and Beth nodded. The bell tower roof was a tricky place. It was domed so there wasn’t much to grip onto, not even ivy, and the wet tiles tended to slip away underfoot without warning. Ravensdaughter pulled herself up over the gutter and scrambled to the top pretty surely, but even for her it was hard. She waited while Beth struggled, but she didn’t dare give her a hand up. She had to keep separate. Instead she called down and told her where all the good handholds were. Finally the human girl made it.

There was no shelter at all here, so the wind from the coming storm whipped Ravensdaughter’s hair into her eyes. She and Beth squatted down, set their hands on the roof’s stone peak, and tried to reach the gargoyles. They’d touched the edges of Sir Scott already. The spell was halfway broken. Now they were going to have to feel into the stone, feel the whole castle, and yell loud enough for every single one of them to hear and wake up. Ravensdaughter thought she could feel herself slipping again into that other place where the world went mute. As she sank in, she was just aware of Beth shifting position to get a better grip.

It all happened very fast. There was a tile sliding, a shriek, then Beth disappeared. Ravensdaughter jolted out of the other place. She rushed over to where Beth had just been and found her clinging to the edge of the roof with a bad grip. Beth’s hands and one leg were on the rain gutter, but she was doing it wrong, she didn’t even know to swing herself up and out of it.

Run and get Doctor-Man, Ravensdaughter thought. But even as she thought it she realized there wasn’t enough time for that. Beth was just too bad at climbing to hang on for that long.

So Ravensdaughter did the only thing she could do. She leaned down and hauled on Beth’s arms, gave her just enough momentum to swing her other leg up and scramble back onto the roof. They clung together there over the gutter a long time, both of them waiting for the terror to fade.

Then came the sound of beating wings. At first Ravensdaughter couldn’t understand what was happening. It was too big to be pigeons. And then Sir Scott rose into view, alive! She thought he would turn back into something else when he woke up, but no, stone was his true form. Living, moving stone. The hair of his mane blew in the wind, even though it was stone, and stone muscles moved under his skin as he beat the air with magnificent wings. He was beautiful.

Ravensdaughter looked over at Beth. The funny human girl was beaming.

Sir Scott passed low over their heads to say thanks, so close Ravensdaughter thought if she put her hand up she could almost brush the stone of his belly. All around the castle the gargoyles’ bodies groaned as they stretched and looked around them, confused. Sir Scott rose, and the gargoyles galloped or swam or slithered out of the places they’d been trapped, whatever way was best for them. The rumbling of all that stone made it sound like the castle was coming apart. They’d done it! They’d broken the spell!

Then it hit her like a piece of roof collapsing under her feet. The fairies were only going to give her one chance when her magic grew in. This was it.

“Wait!” Ravensdaughter pulled away from Beth and scrambled back up the dome of the tower. She was throwing tiles loose with every step but she didn’t care. “Wait! Sir Scott!”

“Ravensdaughter, be careful!”

What if they couldn’t hear her? By now the gargoyles were only specks in the sky. What if they were already too far away and they couldn’t hear her?

“Sir Scott!” she yelled until she was hoarse, tears pricking in her eyes.

“Ravensdaughter!” Beth cried.

Was one of the specks getting bigger? No. Yes! Ravensdaughter’s heart leapt. She clutched the roof slates as Sir Scott dropped out of the sky. He came to hover in front of her, big, dark wings beating the air.

She held her arms out. “Take me with you! I want to be a fairy!”

But Sir Scott didn’t answer and Ravensdaughter felt the first prick of doubt.

“But … the pointy ears…” she began.

Sir Scott shook his head.

Ravensdaughter lowered her arms, then she sat down, and then she put her head in her hands. It wasn’t fair. There was magic and gargoyles, why not fairies? Or maybe there even were fairies. But not her. She’d broken the spell. She couldn’t help it, she started to sob. She was going to be a human girl with pointy ears forever. And … with a little bit of magic, she thought, looking at her hands. But the spell was broken.

Then there was something warm and heavy on her back. It felt strange, not quite like anything she’d felt before. She looked up. Sir Scott was gone, but Beth had come and put an arm around her shoulders.

“You got anybody who looks after you, Ravensdaughter?”

Ravensdaughter swallowed. “Just … Doctor-man,” she managed. “And the kitchen lady, sort of.”

“I think we ought to go and find them. And then we ought to find my parents, and we can go somewhere warm and have — what is it that you eat? Flowers?”

Ravensdaughter nodded, still too choked up to speak. Everything was all horrible, but it was oddly comforting to feel that somebody cared what happened to her. And, well, Doctor-man had given her that sweater, hadn’t he? Maybe she could forgive him for making her wear it after all.

Beth slipped an arm around Ravensdaughter’s waist and gently brought her to her feet. Each supporting the other, they climbed down off of the roof, and then they took the bell tower stairs that would get them to the ground.

Margaret Taylor is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Her previous works include two podcast novels, Grizelda, and The Confederacy of Heaven. She is currently at work on a third novel.

The Colored Lens is a quarterly publication featuring short stories and serialized novellas in genres ranging from fantasy, to science fiction, to slipstream or magical realism. By considering what could be, we gain a better understanding of what is. Through our publication, we hope to help readers see the world just a bit differently than before.

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