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The Iron Raven
Author: Julie Kagawa

 

Part One

 

 

      THE HUMAN WORLD

 

 

A long, long time ago


   It was almost time.

   I peeked out of the bushes and grinned. The stage was nearly set. In the tiny, sun-dappled clearing beyond the trees, the crystal-clear pool glimmered, attracting all manner of life to its sparkling waters. A herd of spotted deer bent graceful necks to the surface under the watchful eye of a great stag, standing tall at the edge of the pond. A few rabbits hopped through the bracken scattered through the clearing, and a family of squirrels scolded each other in the branches of a large gnarled oak. Birds sang, wildlife meandered, and the wind gently rustled the leaves overhead. It was a blissful, picturesque woodland scene, a perfectly peaceful day in the human realm.

   Boring, boring, boring.

   I smiled, reached into my shirt, and pulled the pan flute into the light. It was my own design; I’d spent several days gathering hollow reeds, cutting them, binding them together, and making sure the tone was perfect. Now I was going to see what it could do.

   Drawing glamour from the forest around me, I raised the flute to my lips and blew out a single note.

   The clear, high sound cut through the stillness of the woods, arcing over the grove, and all the animals clustered around the pond jerked up, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. The rabbits sat up, ears twitching back and forth. The deer raised their heads, dark eyes huge as they gazed around, ready to flee. The squirrels’ tails flicked as they clung to the branches, their chittering voices silenced.

   In the sudden stillness, I took a deep breath, gathering my magic, and began playing.

   The melody rose into the air, cheerful and fast-paced. It swirled around the pond, into the ears of every living creature. For a moment, none of them moved.

   Then, one of the rabbits began tapping its foot. The others followed, thumping their hind legs in tune to the rhythm, and the deer began tossing their heads to the music. In the branches, the squirrels bobbed, tails twitching back and forth, keeping time, and the birds added their voices to the song. I bit down a smile and played louder, faster, drawing in more glamour and releasing it into the notes trilling through the forest.

   With a bugle, the ancient stag reared up, tossing his huge antlers, and bounded gracefully to the center of the clearing. His sharp hooves pawed the grass, gouging the earth, as he stepped and leaped with the music. As one, his herd joined him, cavorting to his side, and the rabbits began flinging themselves in wild arcs around the stomping deer. My glee soared; this was working better than I had hoped. It was all I could do to keep playing and not let the song drop because of the enormous grin wanting to stretch my face.

   Rising from the bushes, I walked toward the grove, the pan flute moving rapidly under my lips, the song rising and the magic soaring in response. My feet itched, and I started to move them, dancing to the center of the clearing. Filling my lungs, I played as loudly as I could, my body moving almost on its own, leaping and twirling and spinning through the air. And all around me, the forest creatures danced as well, hooves and horns and furry bodies barely missing me as they bounced and cavorted in a frantic circle, hurling themselves around the grove with wild abandon. I lost myself in the music, in the excitement and ecstasy, as I danced with the forest.

   I didn’t know how long the melody went on; half the time my eyes were closed and I was moving on pure instinct. But at last, as the song reached a crescendo, I sensed it was time to bring it to a close. With one final, soaring note, the melody died away, the wild emotions faded, and the whirlwind of magic swirling through the grove fluttered out, returning to the earth.

   Panting, I lowered my arms. Around me, my fellow dancers also came to shuddering stops, breathing hard. The great stag stood a few feet away, antlered head bowed, legs and flanks trembling. As I watched, he quivered and collapsed, white foam bubbling from his mouth and nostrils as his head struck the ground. One by one, the rest of the herd crumpled as well, some gasping wide-eyed for breath, some lying motionless in the dirt. Scattered around them, furry lumps of rabbits lay in the churned mud. I looked at the trees and saw the squirrels and birds lying at the bases of the trunks, having fallen from their perches once the music ceased.

   I blinked. Well, that was unexpected. How long had I been playing, anyway? I looked at the sky through the branches and saw clouds streaked with orange, the sun hovering low on the horizon. I’d come to this grove and played the very first note early this morning. It seemed our wild revel had lasted the entire day.

   Huh. I scratched the back of my head. Well, that’s disappointing. I guess I can’t push these mortal beasts too aggressively, or they just collapse. Hmm. Tapping the fingers of one hand against my arm, I gazed at the pan flute in the other. I wonder if humans would do any better?

   “Boy.”

   The deep, lyrical voice came from behind me, and a ripple of magic shivered through the air. I felt a stab of annoyance that someone had been watching my revel; that was why I’d chosen to do this in the human world, after all—so I could worry less about curious eavesdroppers.

   I turned and saw a procession of horses at the edge of the clearing, watching me from the trees. The mounts were fey creatures, lighter and much more graceful than their mortal counterparts, their hooves barely touching the ground. The riders atop them were sidhe knights, clad in armor of leaves, vines, and branches woven together. Part of the Summer Court, I realized. I’d seen them before, as well as the knights of the Winter Court. I’d even played with a few of them in the wyldwood, though they never realized the cause of all their small, annoying mishaps was a forest boy too insignificant to notice.

   But the rider at the front of the procession had definitely noticed me, and he was impossible to miss, too. His mount was bright gold, brighter than any mortal steed, but the noble atop it outshone even his mount. He was dressed in armor of green and gold, with a cloak made of blooming vines that left flowers where he passed. Long silver hair flowed from under the huge antlered crown that rested on his brow, and the piercing green eyes beneath it were fixed solely on me.

   Why was he here? Had he heard my music and been drawn to the sound? That was unfortunate. I tried to avoid catching the eye of the Summer Court, particularly this faery. I hadn’t been doing anything wrong; the fey cared little as to what happened in the mortal world. The deaths of a few forest creatures meant nothing to them.

   But attracting the attention of one of the most powerful faeries in the Nevernever was a dangerous game. Depending on his mood, he might demand that I “gift” him the thing I’d worked so hard on, play the pipes for him and his knights for as long as he was amused, or entertain them all by becoming the next hunt. The fey lords were notoriously unpredictable, and I treated them as I would a sleeping dragon: it was okay to tiptoe around and steal their gold, as long as they didn’t see you.

   But now, the dragon had spotted me.

   The sidhe gentry nudged his mount, and the horse stepped into the clearing, striding across the grass until beast and rider loomed before me. I stood my ground and gazed up defiantly at the noble, who was watching me with appraising eyes.

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