Ever since I’d been assigned to her, she’d never once called me by name. In truth, I hadn’t even known that she’d been aware of it before that morning. It was always “Bird” before, or not even any type of address at all – gutteral command noises, or a flick of a talon in some direction. I was just a tool to her, less than a stick to stoke a fire. Never Declan – not anymore.
That, above all else, was what told me she was down to her last hour. Her ragged breath was eking out in discomfiting spurts, and the edge of the ratty blanket they’d given her was stained with splatters and lung muck from the coughing; the middle-aged Tengu woman in the doorway stared down at it in disgust.
“This was a hell of a time to come back, finally,” she spat, idly scratching her beak. A collection of young crowboys were skulking behind her silently.
My mistress (it sounds almost affectionate to me now), propped up on a straw mattress, stared up at the ceiling and, with considerable labor, sighed: “I only came back to die. I’ll be out of your feathers soon enough.”
“Why the hell couldn’t you die wherever the birddamn hell you been this whole time?” she shrieked. One of the boys, the middle-sized one, took a frightened step back into the hall and ran to the other end of the hut.
Usually the blessing of a heir being chosen at fifteen is that she is too young to have started a family or to have made her own attachments. At least, I am supposing that was the design of your original bargain. Old enough to be a little less puerile and idiotic but not old enough to have children, maybe?
That was the plan, anyway. But even the Tengu have come a long way in a hundred years; as bad as their state is now, it was far worse back then. They married the girls off young, sickeningly young, and my first mistress gave birth to a child, another girl, six days before her fifteenth birthday – before you or whatever agent you were using then showed up at her windowsill.
She slowly swung her eyes back down at the creature in the doorway. “I had no choice. I never would’ve left you of my own volition, Taney.”
“Nee,” she hissed. “Taney’s your name.”
For the first time in my acquaintance with this wretched death-hag I began to feel sorry for her. I frankly should have been elated at her impending doom, due to the cold indifference with which she’d treated me for ten years, but I couldn’t muster any feelings of excitement. She squinted at her daughter. “This just… happened to me, and it will happen again – maybe even to you and your’n this time.”
“Not me! I only had boys. On purpose. Avoided that shit.” She beamed down at the two remaining ones with pride. The eldest mirrored her countenance, a mixture of feigned superiority, anger, and irritation, but the youngest made no effort to conceal his fascination at the tableau before him.
The daughter drove forward. “Ain’t no cause for you to come back here. I done dealt with all that years ago and here you come up in my house. MY HOUSE dammit. Why the fuck Hubert even let you in is beyond my reckoning.”
Some muscle in my tiny, cranky little heart must have snapped.
“Home,” I said, quoting an old piece of poetry I’d read in my past life, “is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Everyone in the room turned to stare at me, questions flickering in their beady eyes.
After a long pause Nee squawked, “I didn’t ask you, cumwad.”
“Declan.” Sensing an argument and trying to stop it, Taney Ruk had placed a desiccated talon on my back, not aggressively, but to regain my attention.
Nee threw up her hands and stomped out of the room; the eldest followed, and the youngest only tagged along after a few more staring seconds.
“Declan, the littlest – that’n who looks more like the husband –”
That distinction meant nothing to me as all these crow people look the fucking same to me, and I can SAY THAT since I AM a crow which makes it not creaturist – end-of, we’re moving on.
Anyway, she continued:
“Tonight, afterward…make sure he gets them robes.” She’d already folded them and set them to the side; she was currently dressed in some poor attempt at a sleeping gown that Nee had thrown at her. Literally thrown in her face.
“Help him hide them somewhere. They’ll be important to him, later, much later.”
I flew over and landed on top of them, perching there to signify my agreement.
“As for you, now begins the long wait. You –”
She was interrupted by a coughing fit.
“…you’ll serve the next heir, too. Your sentence ain’t up for a while yet and you’ve more work to do, I was told. Wait until the new witch is born, and watch the little crow careful; he’ll have a girl. It’ll take a while but wait it out. She’ll be the last of many childrens. In the mean time, fly around a bit, I suppose.”
That’s helpful, Taney. Thanks, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I’d never been allowed to be myself with her and it felt wrong to start at that moment.
I watched her struggle to breathe for a few more minutes, her heavy eyes closed, and again I was awash with this completely grotesque feeling – pity. This deal you made, you bitch (I know you’re listening) – it’s insane, it’s reprehensible, it’s beyond the bleakest horrors of what I once thought I knew. What you did to me, as much as I despise you for it, was still less cruel than this.
“What else can I do?”
She kept her eyes closed, patted her shoulder slowly with one hand.
“Just stay with me. Until it’s over.”
I hopped up to her shoulder, reduced to bone and jagged feather pieces and papery flakes of skin, breaking even as I perched on it. Somehow she ceased coughing for long enough to fall asleep. That was your one mercy.
In the morning Nee and Hubert threw her on a cart and drove it to the fens. I think they burned her there and took whatever specks of interest shined through the ash, filling their crumby pockets with her spell-beads and witch baubles.
But I wasn’t there for that, because I’d stayed behind for one last command.
You know the rest.
You knew it all, anyway.