Queen of Crows – Rachel Ayers

Queen of Crows – Rachel Ayers

August 2022
A Queen of Crows

Mag loved the witches’ kitchen, though it did not love her back.

There were shelves of cookbooks and spellbooks as well as histories and tales, herbs hung from the rafters, spices in their jars on the shelf. The stone hearth with its tremendous mantel was her favorite place to sit and flip through the pages or sort through the apples or peel the potatoes. The kitchen garden, walled and hidden, was a tidy riot of scents and flavors, and Mag knew them all.

The witches left her alone, often enough, though not idle. Then the sparrows and robins would come and tell her stories of far off places, good witches and dancing princesses, glass slippers, wolves in red capes, and maidens trapped in towers rescued by woodcutters.

She had no sense of her own age, though the witches often called her ‘pretty young one,’ and she did not know how old she was when she realized that, however unlikely it was, a prince or a woodcutter coming to her rescue would be a great adventure. She was far too timid to imagine undertaking a quest alone, but a brave companion or a true love made her daydreams safer.

Mostly she was too busy to think of such things. The three witches kept her cooking, cleaning, grinding herbs for their spells, and whatever other little task they brought her. She mended for them, read to them from ancient grimoires, and brushed their long, sleek hair.

Nobody followed the road to the witches’ cottage. No princes, no woodcutters, nor even big bad wolves, by coincidence or design, wandered by and invited her to be whisked away from the witches and their work.

Mag’s entire life might have consisted of nothing more than fairy stories and her little bit of kitchen herbology, except that one summer morning a murder of crows flew in through the window and settled around her, on the counters and the sink and the unlit stove. One particularly fine specimen sat on the rim of the basin where she was doing the washing.

“Shoo,” she said.

The crow looked at her, unthreatened.

“If the witches find you in here, you’ll be baked into a pie.”

The crow cawed. It sounded like laughter.

She answered the crow with a caw of her own. The bird went silent, cocked her head at Mag, formed her opinion of the young woman.

The bird shook her feathers and sent the others back out the window. One, two, three, four. Five crows for riches, Mag had heard the rhyme, so this last one must be their queen.

She got a handful of oats from the barrel and held it out. The crow gave her that doubtful, cocked-head expression again. “Go on, then, your highness,” said Mag, and the crow dipped her beak into the heap of seed, tossing her head back to swallow.

“Hardly appetizing, child,” the crow told her with great dignity.

“Hmm.” Mag thought for a moment, then offered her a dried plum. The Queen Crow took this as well, and seemed to prefer it. She preened for a moment, ignoring Mag, who shrugged and went back to her scrubbing. “Don’t want to talk, then? You aren’t much company,” Mag scolded, but the queen did not deign to answer. When she splashed the crow with a bit of sudsy water, she squawked in indignation, ruffled her feathers, and flew out the window.

Mag laughed and thought no more about it.

A Dance for Two

The Queen of Crows flew back the same evening, as the sun turned the sky the color of ripe plums. Mag was hauling water from the well to the garden. Summer had been hot and hard. Persistent watering had kept the garden flourishing.

The crow flapped noisily from beyond the roof and landed in the cherry tree, greeting Mag with her rough voice.

“Welcome back,” Mag said. The crow’s eyes followed her to the herb patch beside the kitchen door. She dumped the water out, and when her bucket was empty, the crow flew to the windowsill and appealed to Mag with shining black eyes.

“I haven’t any more treats for you,” Mag said. “You’ll have to earn your supper, just as I do.”

“How shall I do that?” the crow asked.

The queen could not haul water, or peel potatoes, or pull the boiling cauldron from the fire. “Sing for your supper, like they say.”

The queen cawed, crowed, laughed at that idea. Her throaty, cackling voice was by no means pleasant. Yet Mag found she was pleased by the effort, and went about preparing dinner for the witches, and herself, and the crow.

The queen flew away when the witches returned, tittering and boasting more than any crow ever had. They had their supper in a swirl of merriment which did not reach out to Mag.

When they had gone back to their business, she went into the moonlit garden. A rustle from the cherry tree alerted her: there was the crow, a shadow in the darkness, studying her.

“I’ve sung for you,” the queen cawed. “Will you dance for me?”

“You sang for your supper,” Mag countered. “What shall I dance for?”

The queen cocked her head one way and then the other. “For my curiosity,” she ventured, which Mag liked, but:

“I don’t know how.”

“If my singing pleased you, I assure you your dancing will please me.”

So she swayed, and turned, and raised her arms to the moon. Witches’ chants played in her head, and she moved to their rhythm, shuffling and then spinning with growing grace.

The crow’s head bobbed to her movements. She flew to join Mag, becoming impossibly large; touched her wingtips to Mag’s outspread hands. Black feathers fell away to reveal black skin, and they danced.

All night they twirled and spun in the garden, laughing and cawing at each other in equal measure.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, the crow caught up the feather cloak she’d cast aside for the dance, changed again in a burst of wings and feathers, and flew away.

Three Witches

The witches called themselves Rozhanitsy, Parca, and Norn. Their business was concocting spells of youth, beauty, and fortune. The vast majority of the works Mag read to them over dinner were treatises or spells on the subject of immortality; her own interests ranged more widely but she had less time for them. The witches were generally merry, more prone to laughter than grumbling. They teased each other mercilessly, and were carelessly cruel to Mag when it amused them.

“What’s got you moping, Mag dear?” asked Rozhanitsy, who chattered more than magpies.

Mag had not realized she was acting differently, but she missed the crow queen, who had not returned.

“My friend has gone away,” she told them.

Rozhanitsy, Parca, and Norn clucked with glee. “What friend? What friend have you got? Where has your friend gone, pretty young Mag?”

“She is a queen,” she told them, holding dignity close as a cloak. “She came and sat in the garden. I gave her some food, and we danced in the moonlight. She left, though, and hasn’t returned.”

At this, they grew quiet, thoughtful. They consulted amongst themselves, muttering low so that Mag only caught a few words. “If she should return… royalty… by what path could anyone… lest we lose her….”

They turned back to her, three sets of eyes glaring suspicion. Rozhanitsy asked, voice sugary, “Mag, sweet Mag, how did this lady—err, queen—arrive? By the path? Through the woods?”

“She flew in the window with four of her court. Then they flew away again, but she came back alone later.”

Norn, eldest of the three and sharpest, narrowed her eyes. “What did this queen of yours look like, Mag?”

“Black as my hair, with bright eyes and a sharp nose.”

More murmuring and glances exchanged.

“And how tall was your queen, young Mag?” asked Rozhanitsy.

Mag spanned her hands in front of her.

Their concern turned into a fit of sniggering.

“And how wide her wing-span, your flying queen?” Parca peeked at the others for approval.

Mag held her arms out again.

“And how rough her voice?” asked Rozhanitsy.

Mag cawed an imitation of the Queen Crow.

The witches collapsed in laughter, howling and slapping one another. Mag watched them, her face hot from their teasing.

Parca and Norn, still shaking in amusement, went through the kitchen door and down the hall. Rozhanitsy stayed a moment, and said, “Mag, I hope your friend does return. But crows are tricky, and if she does come back, you should catch her and let us bake her into a pie.”

Four Small Losses

Rarely was Mag tempted into an act of disobedience, but in her longing for the Queen Crow to return, she found herself in a sour and disagreeable mood. She burned the cooking and dragged her feet around the garden. forgot the herbal lore she knew in her sleep and mixed up cumin and fennel for the first time in her memory. She did the washing and mending, but so slowly and so ill that she had to do it all twice. She answered the witches’ questions in surly tones or grunts.

It went on for weeks, until Rozhanitsy came into the kitchen and asked her what was wrong. Mag shrugged and continued to scrub the stew pot without vigor.

“Dear, pretty Mag.” Rozhanitsy drew her away from the sink to sit at the table. “You know that we three care for you, and feed you, and provide for all your needs. All we ask in return is your unquestioning obedience. You understand that, right?”

Mag nodded.

“Well, child, I’d like to believe you, but from the way you’ve behaved lately, I’m not sure that settles things. What is for dinner?”

Mag had a bit of dough rising for bread; she hadn’t thought beyond that. She’d spent the morning reading a tale of a hedgehog who was secretly a prince and tricked the nearby king out of his daughter.

“I see.” Rozhanitsy patted Mag’s hands, there before her on the table, and then in a quick motion, cut off the little finger of Mag’s right hand. The knife had appeared and disappeared so suddenly it might have been magic. Mag stared, numb, at her blood and her pinkie, lying separate from the rest of her.

Rozhanitsy scooped up the finger and studied it for a moment, then tidied it away into her pocket. “Mag, I want you to remember this. It’s a moment to help you focus. We’re doing very important work and we can’t be bothered with cooking and cleaning. We depend on you.”

Rozhanitsy bustled out of the kitchen.

Then the pain started, and Mag wailed.

Though the witches had punished Mag before, they had never done anything so permanent. Mag, shocked at this betrayal, gave up thoughts of black birds and night dances. She grew accustomed to the loss, regaining her dexterity once the pain faded. Norn put her finger bones on the mantle, and it was enough to remind Mag of her place. She did not even need to consult the books, once she recalled herself to focus, to concoct a balm to stop the ghost of her finger from itching.

She did have company, an occasional robin or blue jay, but never a crow. She worked up the nerve, finally, and asked for news of the Queen Crow. A sparrow told her that she’d given up her crown and was dancing with ladies-in-waiting in a distant palace. Late one night, an owl told her that the Queen Crow had married a prince, the youngest son of a faraway king.

“Yes, yes indeed.” The owl blinked down at Mag’s astonishment. “The court of crows flew for seven days, to a kingdom of spiraling towers and bright flowers. A sunny place, with too much daylight. Warm, though.”

“I don’t understand,” Mag protested.

“Oh! Well, the farther south one travels, the warmer the seasons.”

Mag crossed her arms. “I meant about the court of crows, and the wedding.”

“Ah!” The owl shuffled in her feathers, settling into the crook of the branch. “There was a ball at the grand palace, a three day extravaganza, where beautiful ladies and handsome men were dancing together, wearing shimmering garments and feather masks. The Crow Queen flew down to join them, and took the form of a woman, and wore her feathers as a magnificent cape. At the end of three nights, the prince was to choose a bride from the revelers.”

“I think I know the story,” said Mag. Or at least she had heard one like it.

“I did not attend to the details,” the owl admitted. “The Crow Queen, however, danced with one lord more than all the others. He wore raiment of gold, radiant as sunlight. His mask was made of the feathers the crows and the ravens, all the darkest birds, and on the third night as the prince claimed his bride, the dark lord slipped off his mask and asked the Crow Queen to be his wife. For he too was a prince of that land, and needed a bride of his own.

“That was many seasons ago, of course. The rest of the court of crows scattered, and it was some time more recent that I heard these tidings.”

Mag felt foolish. She had longed for the Crow Queen, who, it seemed, had not given Mag a second thought. She left the owl to watch for mice and voles in the garden and went back to her kitchen hearth.

Mag wept all night, surrounded by the scent of the thyme and rue she’d bundled to dry above the hearth. At dawn, she crept back to her bed in the corner of the kitchen and recited herbal lore to herself until she fell asleep.

Norn was not pleased. She woke Mag, shaking her until the girl sat up and stared at her, blinking in the light.

“Mag,” she said, “There was nothing for breakfast, and lunch looks to be missing, too. The kitchen is a mess, and the clothes in the mending heap haven’t been touched all day. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I was sleeping.” Mag lay back down and shut her eyes; she was not sleeping, in truth, but dreaming of a life where she was a princess in a tower instead of a servant in a kitchen.

She heard Norn sigh. “Has it been a hard night, child? Have you trouble waking?” Norn took her uninjured hand and gave it a gentle pat. “Let me aid you.”

Mag cracked her eyes open in time to see the witch lift the hand to her mouth and bite off the smallest finger.

It hurt immediately this time.

Norn pulled the finger out of her mouth and wagged it at Mag. “You look more bright-eyed already. Now see to your chores.”

Mag found her focus once more, and soon after, the new bones were added to the mantle. She grew ever quieter, afraid to lose any more of herself, and continued to do the witches’ bidding. When she gathered herbs in the cold light of the full moon she would, sometimes, think of flying away over the garden wall, but no matter her dreams, she did not grow wings; in all the witches’ books, the only spells that granted such transformations came at too permanent a cost.

It was a spring evening, more than a year later, when she saw a single sooty black crow winging across the sky. It was too far away to see if it had been the queen, but Mag waved and called to it. The crow fluttered and dipped, landing on the branch where his queen had alighted the night she danced with Mag.

“Stay a while, rest,” she said, holding out a handful of dried plums. “Tell me of your queen.”

“Oh, our queen, hmph, she is gone quite mad, or so they say.” The crow plucked the fattest plum from Mag’s palm.

“Mad?” Mag prompted; the bird took his time over the fruit.

“Well, in the way of a creature who cannot be herself,” he clarified, chortling over another choice plum.

Mag sighed in sympathy.

“She cannot be cured of her humanity.” The crow eyed her suspiciously and then gulped the last plum. “Her husband stole away her feather cloak when she bore him a son, and when she demanded her feathers back, he told her that he couldn’t have a wife who would fly away on a whim. She has been searching for her cloak ever since, and has all of us, her true court, seeking for another way to change back into her true self. She has tried tinctures and ointments, and consults with wise-women and witches alike. The human courtiers think her quite touched.”

The bird cocked his head again, but seeing no more plums forthcoming, bunched his feathers to fly again.

“Wait!” Mag cried, but he was already off, over the garden wall and out of sight. Free as she never could be, the bird awakened a bitter longing in her heart.

She wanted to follow the crow, to find its Queen. For the first time, Mag was desperate to leave, determined to go. She wanted to see more than a tiny garden corner of the world. She wanted more than witches and potions and a tidy little kitchen. She wanted to find her friend.

In front of the cottage was a dark flagstone path. It was not so very long, and then there was the road, stretching into the forest in either direction. Mag set out without so much as an apple for the road, but stopped at the garden gate, unable to decide which way to go, and then a thousand protests clamored in her mind: where would she go, how would she eat, how would she earn her way? Foolish girl, she scolded herself.

She sank to the frigid stones, lost within sight of the garden wall she knew so well.

When morning came, Rozhanitsy, Parca, and Norn found her still at the end of the path, shivering in the misty sunlight. They brought her back to her hearth and then Rozhanitsy and Parca left her alone with Norn.

Norn sat beside her. “What’s gotten into your head?”

“I want to fly away.” Mag hid her face in her hands, felt the ghosts of her smallest fingers tickling her cheeks and wished she hadn’t spoken.

“Don’t we feed you, and keep you safe? The world is a hard place, and you’re safe here, so long as you do what you’re told. You understand that, don’t you?”

Mag nodded, but did not lift her face.

“You are part of our great work, Mag,” Norn told her. “One day we will find our answer, and that will be because you have assisted us. That gives your life meaning. You will find no answer so easy as that in the wider world.”

“But I want to see it!” Mag burst out, then clapped her hands over her mouth. She looked at Norn, fearful.

“However much you may wish to fly away, you haven’t got wings. Remember your feet? There on the ends of your legs? You’ll do better to stay solidly planted, and keep to your work.”

This time, Mag was ready for the knife. She jumped away as Norn moved toward her.

“Sisters,” Norn said. She did not raise her voice, but they appeared as though they had been waiting for her.

Mag fought them, kicking and thrashing, but she had nowhere to go, and soon they had her trapped. Rozhanitsy and Parca held her, and Norn cut the smallest toe from each foot.

Mag screamed.

Norn took no notice. Mag nearly missed the witch’s words over the throbbing of blood through her ears and face. “One for grounding, two for obedience. Remember, Mag.”

She remembered, but it was not the last time she attempted flight.

Five Years

On the fifth anniversary of her flying away, the Queen of Crows returned as though only days had passed. She sat on the kitchen mantel, next to Mag’s tiny bones, and cawed impatiently at Mag when she did not look up from her chair beside the fire.

“Go away, bird.” It was evening; she was nearly finished hemming Norn’s new skirt and she wanted to go to bed early.

“Why do you hunch over your work, and speak like an old woman?” the crow asked her. “Your face is not lined, your hair is not gray.”

Now she glared at the queen with the full force of her anger and despair. “Why should I be young and happy? Is my life so wonderful? Is my life worth anything at all?”

The crow fluttered, but settled again. “Your life is hard, and I owe you an apology, for leaving you and more. Will you listen to my story, and decide if you can forgive me?”

Mag pushed herself out of the chair and hobbled outside. There was now a shackle on each ankle, and the chain between them was short. Her missing toes ached as winter bowed to spring.

She sat on the stoop. The moon was already in the sky, glowing orange on the horizon. The witches were gone to some revelry or mischief. Mag did not know when they would return.

The crow followed her and landed on the garden path, inky against the pale flagstones.

“Do you remember the night we danced in the moonlight?” she asked.

Mag laughed; not happily.

“When I watched you dance, I learned how to take off my feathers and stand as a woman.” From her place before Mag, she shook herself. Then a cloak of feathers fell away, and she held it in human hands. She sat cross-legged on the stony path. “I flew far away that night, afraid of what I had, for that moment, become. Humans are tricky, confusing creatures, and I had felt things I did not understand. I flew until the sun rose, then I slept. When I woke, I did not know where I was, only that I was far outside my territory.”

She told Mag of her young prince, who had seemed a brilliant novelty but had twisted her life into a cage. Of her search for a restoration, and the hedge-witch who had advised her. All this Mag knew, but now the Queen told her in greater detail, and her heart twisted as she remembered her own longing to go to her friend’s aid.

“For a time, I was lost in despair. But news came to me that the queen was, at last, expecting a child. When the babe was born, my husband said to me: ‘Destroy the babe, wife, and I’ll return your cloak.’ This was the first proof I had that he knew where it was, and I became furious. I called him an evil wizard. He said there was but one way for me to get what I wanted, and at last I told him I would do as he bid.”

Mag startled at this, horrified.

“I went by night to the queen’s chamber, and stole her little daughter. The child was peaceful in my hands, and as I gazed at her, I conceived a great love in my heart. I could no more harm her than I could hurt my own son. I took the girl deep into the forest, to a hedge witch I had met in my quest to return to my true form.

“When I told my husband the deed was done, he clapped and laughed, and I saw the shadow of the beauty that had drawn me to him. ‘Now fulfill your end of the bargain, husband.’

“He tore his pillow from our bed. Black feathers fluttered in the air around him. ‘What have you done?’

“ ‘I used the life in them to conceive our child.’

“I knew, then, of one magic to try, though I did not know if it would work.”

Mag watched the queen’s gentle fingers close into fists. She continued, as though she dare not stop now.

“I went to the queen and revealed all that I knew. She called the king, who was grieved at his brother’s treachery, but when his eyes met mine I could see that he was not surprised.

“In the morning my husband was tied to a stake in the courtyard. I carried my son forward, and then drew from a sack all of my beautiful black feathers. I spread them on the ground around him while my child watched.

“I raised my head, and called out in my true voice. My lord’s face turned to fear as I summoned my own court. First a single crow appeared, and then two more, and then a whole murder. They dove at the man I had married, pecking and clawing at him. As he bled, each drop fell upon a feather, restoring the vitality he had stolen from me. The king and queen clung to each other, turning their faces away. Our son cried and reached forward to touch my cloak, and in that instant was transformed into a crow.

“When the last breath left my husband’s body, my cloak was complete, but for a ragged corner which had formed around my son. At last I could stretch my wings again. I took to the air, and my son followed, and the other crows too, and we did not look back.”

Mag touched the cloak. It was sleek and smooth; no trace of the blood-magic remained.

The crow queen gestured, and Mag made out a fluttering in the trees outside the garden fence. There was her court. One of the birds was smaller, his feathers not quite as black; bits of baby down still showed in patches.

“Why did you come back?” Mag asked.

“When I was only a crow, I didn’t understand why you were here. Now that I have been trapped, I know what it looks like. I have come to set you free.” She stopped, then, almost shyly, “If you wish to come with me.”

Mag touched the shackles at her ankles. “How?”

The queen raised her arm, gave a signal, and the crows left the trees. They flowed past in a rush of wings and wind, and flew into the house.

Silence fell while they waited.

The first crow returned with a hair pin from Rozhanitsyi’s dresser, a bit of metal gleaming in the moonlight. Mag picked it up and looked at the Queen Crow.

“Wait,” she assured Mag.

The second crow flew out and dropped a coin at their feet. Mag had seen Parca twiddling with it, shining it through her fingers, a few evenings earlier.

A third crow came back with Norn’s little mirror, the one she used to look at faraway places. Mag caught it before it broke on the flagstones.

The three crows looked at their little collection, then at the queen. They ruffled their feathers in a kind of shrug, and flew back into the house.

The crows of the Queen’s court repeated this until Mag had a little pile of glittering objects at her feet.

At last, the Queen’s son returned. In his beak he carried a tiny key, duller in color than the other objects. Mag recognized it.

The little bird landed in her lap and held it until she took it from his beak. She fit it to the lock at her ankle, and the Queen Crow reached forward and turned it.

The shackle opened with a crack.

Six Days

“Come away, come away,” the crows urged. “Before they return.”

Mag took nothing with her. She followed the crows’ singing; they cawed to her from the trees ahead. She found she was able to keep a steady pace, in spite of leaving her toes on the witches’ mantel.

They walked all through the night and into the next day. Mag felt lighter with every step away from the witches’ cottage. Every new sight refreshed her, whether it was a beautiful lady rushing by in a gilded coach, or an old man ambling along with a load of firewood, or a young lad guarding miniscule treasures in his wary fists.

They passed through the woods, and then a little hamlet, and then onto a broader road. The Crow’s son joined them for a time, utterly silent, toddling along, then took to the air again. The Queen Crow herself seemed content to walk with Mag, watching her take in every scene along their way with as much delight as she took in watching her son discover new things.

They stopped for the night, and the Queen Crow paid for a room, telling the innkeeper that Mag was her sister. Mag could not imagine where she kept the coins when she changed to a crow. She winked at Mag as she shone the money through her clever fingers.

Though she was exhausted, Mag was too full of the day to sleep. So the queen told her stories, from her life, or that she had heard, long into the night. Mag fell asleep dreaming of distant places, cottages on chicken’s legs and magic lamps.

Five days more, they continued in this fashion. The farther Mag got from the witches’ cottage, the more certain she became that this was real, but even so, she did not ask where they were going: a destination was too much to believe.

Then she heard laughter.

Seven for a Secret

The witches came sweeping over the land in a dark wind, finding her as easily as if she were still in the kitchen. They stole her away from the Queen Crow while she slept, head tucked under her wing, and brought Mag back to her little kitchen hearth, and all her fighting and thrashing and cursing made them laugh more.

“Mag, Mag, we must have you! We are almost at the end of all our hard work! Don’t you want to know what happens?”

“I want to leave,” Mag said. She would run farther this time.

They pulled her into the kitchen and sat her at the table. She waited for them to chain her, but they did not. Instead they pointed to the cauldron, where a murky stew was brewing.

“There it is, my dear,” said Rozhanitsyi. “The key to our immortality, at last. Everyone dies, but we will break our fate. After all our long preparations, we have only to test it.”

“I don’t want to be immortal.” Mag leaned away from their gazes.

They cackled. “Oh you won’t, pretty Mag,” said Parca. “We have undergone intense rituals, sacrificed many things, and prepared our bodies. The potion will not make you immortal.”

“Then why do you want to test it on me?” she asked. She wondered if she could bolt for the door. One look at their faces killed the thought; they would catch her before she made it outside.

“If you take it, we can observe the effects, and match them with our studies. Then we will know the potion has been properly prepared,” Norn explained. “It is very delicate; a single wrong ingredient will unbalance the whole thing. But I promise you, Mag, you will smile if you taste it. And after you test it, we will never ask anything of you again.” She looked at the other witches. “What say you, sisters? This last task and Mag may go wherever she wills?”

They smiled and nodded. “Yes, Mag,” said Parca, and Rozhanitsy added, “Nothing more will we ask of you!”

“I may go freely if I test your potion?” Surely it was a trick, some mischief, but they gazed at her earnestly.

Rozhanitsy nodded. “We will have no more need of you.”

“How long will it take?” Mag asked, suspicious.

They hesitated. Then Norn said firmly, “One day. We must observe the effects for a full day, to be certain.”

“And it won’t hurt me?”

“It will make you smile,” Rozhanitsy said again.

“Very well, I will test it. Then I never want to see you again,” Mag said.

“You won’t have to,” Parca said. She looked a bit hurt.

Norn dipped a spoonful of the stuff and brought it to Mag’s mouth, feeding her like a babe.

It did not taste as bad as it looked; bitter, but with the sharpness of fresh herbs. She swallowed, and waited.

It started in her stomach, a cramp, a slight discomfort. She pressed her hands against her belly. Norn, Rozhanitsy, and Parca were nodding, smiling: pleased.

And it spread, a hot cramping pain, worse than anything Mag had ever known. She tumbled out of her chair, collapsing to the floor as fire and chills raced through her body. She gasped at the shock of it and crumpled beside the hearth.

“Very good,” Norn said, checking the sheaf of notes she held. “It is going as I expected.”

“We will check on you soon,” Rozhanitsy said, patting Mag’s head. Each touch sent daggers through her skull.

The witches left her alone. They didn’t need to chain her; she couldn’t even crawl.

The Queen Crow flew in through the window. She transformed in an instant and knelt beside Mag. “What have they done?”

Mag could not answer.

The queen touched her face with feather-light fingers. She studied the cauldron, the spoon resting on the table. “They are killing you.”

Mag nodded and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Come away,” the crow said. “Hurry,” she said.

Mag could not move. “Stay,” she pleaded.

An hour later, Rozhanitsy returned. The crow flew away before she entered the room. “Another dose, my dear. This one should go a bit better.” She fed Mag another spoonful.

The effect spread through her body again. She grew heavy, as though the earth had decided to draw her closer. The pain chasing through her body thumped its now-familiar rhythm. It was harder still to move.

When Rozhanitsy left, the crow came back.

Mag knew, then, of one last magic to try, though she did not know if it would work. “May I have a feather?” Mag asked.

The queen plucked one, long and dark as night, from her cloak. Mag pointed toward the cauldron, and the crow dropped it into the potion.

“Come back here,” Mag whispered, “if you will. It helps, I think.” She reached out a leaden hand. The queen returned and held her fingers carefully until they heard Norn coming into the kitchen.

Each time Norn fed her a sip, the potion grew clearer, as though Mag were draining the color from it. Mag sank and then floated, was sick and then hot and then numb. Sometimes Norn asked her how she was feeling; sometimes she was able to answer.

After each dose, the Queen Crow or one of her court added a feather, which disappeared with no more than a sizzle and wisp of light. It was, she reasoned, no more risky than doing nothing; she did not believe the witches would let her leave alive.

“One more taste after this,” Norn said, late in the night, and fed Mag a spoonful that made her tingle all over.

The Crow returned, and prepared to drop another feather into the potion; a downy feather from her son. “No,” Mag said.

She tipped her beak at Mag quizzically.

She pointed at the mantle. The queen found Mag’s finger- and toe-bones where the witches had left them.

“Yes,” she managed.

The queen added them to the concoction, which hissed and boiled for a moment before settling again to the clarity of fresh rainwater. “What do we make, Mag?” she asked.

Mag tried to explain the muddled lore in her mind; the thoughts chased around each other and would not leave her mouth. She was not even certain that her idea would work, if the witches’ potion was too strong for her to change—but another potion of transformation, another spell to change the form of a life—it was all she could try. The crow watched her and then nodded thoughtfully. “You need not speak, then, my dear,” she told Mag. “I will wait and see.”

At sunrise, all three witches returned. Norn gave her one last dose. “How does that suit you?”

Mag took an easy breath. The last of the aches and chills faded away, and the various discomforts dissipated. Pleasure—and then euphoria—filled her senses.

“It’s… wonderful,” she said, and felt a grimacing smile grip her cheeks. The room faded; she could not focus her eyes.

“We’ll be back in an hour,” Parca said, “to move the body.”

The others shushed her, and they left Mag alone again.

She felt glorious: as though light were pouring out of her, as though she were drinking honey-wine gone to her head.

She realized that the Queen Crow was weeping into her human hands, dark hair spilling over her face. “Why are you crying?” Mag asked.

“Because you are dying, and I have just begun to know you.”

She looked down at herself in wonder: was this dying? Then she realized that she was truly looking down at herself from above. Her skin was turning gray, her eyes were growing dull. There was a smile on her lips, but the queen was right: she was dying. The witches would let her go because they had no use for the dead.

So then, if that body did not hold her mind any longer, where was Mag? She shook herself, felt the soft rattle of feathers tested for the first time.

The Queen Crow held out a hand to her and she alighted. “Hello there, Maggie,” she murmured. “You are still here.”

“Did you not know why I asked for your feathers?” Mag asked.

“No.” She stroked Mag with her other hand. “I thought you were lost.”

Mag preened, testing her feathery body. She was spirit-light; a wisp of a creature, hardly more substantial than a cloud. It was all she had left, but it was a body, and one that could fly. She did not know how long it would last; but then, no one ever did. “Hurry,” she said. “Help me.”

She flew out to the garden and plucked elderberries, evil’s bane; they bled red on their white blossoms as she tugged them free. She winged back and dropped them into the cauldron. They disappeared in the clear potion, with nothing but a wisp of steam to show they’d ever been.

Next, flax and horehound, for purification. The other crows, under their queen’s command, followed her lead, around the garden and back again. Now rue and vervain, cleansing herbs, the potion still and clear as water. Rosemary: distinctive, purifying. And last, ague root, also called crow corn, hex breaker, ritual uncrosser. Her beloved kitchen and garden had never loved her back, but she knew every herb and its effect. With every gleaning from the garden and from her years studying their books, she bent the potion to her own purpose.

The witches returned to the kitchen, a dead girl, and a new potion.

Mag lingered under the eaves. “See how she smiles, even in death,” Norn said. “See how her skin is like stone. The potion has worked as described on an unprepared mortal. It is ready for us, now.”

“I thought she’d grow smaller,” said Rozhanitsy.

“I thought she’d be wrinkled,” said Parca.

“And I thought our preparations would be done decades ago,” Norn said sternly. “Let us finish this thing, sisters.”

They drank until the cauldron was emptied.

Mag fluttered to the trees, where the Queen was waiting with her court and her son. They welcomed her into their murder as the witches steamed and shrieked. Mag’s spell scoured them of the death they’d twisted back to life, cleaned them of the wrongness they’d collected and clutched over the years. She did not think there would be anything left of them after that.

She did not stay to see.

The Queen Crow’s court flew away: one as white as a dove, as there-and-gone as a wisp of cloud. Housewives and hedge witches watched them pass overhead. Some counted six and some counted seven, and all kept their secrets to themselves.

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