On Listening to Ravens

From “The Servant and the Raven, “a fantasy novel I am writing inspired by the Brother Grimm’s old fairytale, “The White Snake.” In this excerpt, the two friends, Caedmon mac Cumhaill and Egil Skallagrimsson, resume an earlier conversation about the uncanny powers of ravens.

When the young bard finally returned, the sun had just slid behind the Valley’s high wall and the land within taken on a cool rich emerald hue. Neither youth felt the need to speak. Sitting a little distance from Caedmon, his back against the wall, Egil drew a bone flute from an inner pocket and played meditatively upon it for a while. He then set it beside him, and, as if off-handedly, said, “Speaking of ravens…”

Caedmon turned and studied him. His new friend’s eyes were set in a distant gaze, as if he were about to launch into a tale that had to be gathered up from some far-away region.

“When I was a boy, I travelled much with my father. Those days the petty kings no longer dared stir out of their castles, so strong had the Volsung overlordship become, and so they contented themselves with hunting, whoring, and listening to songs from wandering bards such as my father. It didn’t hurt that my dad was a magician of the sleight-of-hand variety either. Making gold coins appear out of a lordling’s ear always went down well among the rustics.”

Egil laughed bitterly, the memory of those old days still strong within him. Caedmon listened with fascination – what had prompted the bard to share this story with him?

“Of my exiled father’s high art and lineage,” Egil continued, “the kinglets in their tankard thumping halls knew nothing, nor did they care. We eked out a living, and during winter the times got lean indeed.

One evening, my father sat with me before the stingy fire of a miserable inn, tossing our pouch of gold coins up and down in his hand. It was getting perilously light. Outside, an icy wind was gusting out of the North and the dark clouds blacking out the stars over the mountains promised another heavy fall of snow. Although my dad said nothing, I knew we’d need to make the shelter of the next castle soon or freeze in the land of the inhospitable Odin’s Folk.

Yet even in the worst of circumstances, my father never lost his ear for a tale.”

Egil paused and looked at Caedmon.

“You know how some men bear their exile on the surface with their accents and foreign ways? Other men carry it within them. They gaze out at the world as if from deep water, and their movements leave a faint sadness in their wake. The fellow who joined us at the fire was one such. Long-limbed and delicate featured, with a mop of brown hair on his head, it was clear his hands were shaped for a paint brush, not a battle ax, and the motley pattern of dried paint stains on his work clothes gave him away as an artisan.

My father and the man fell into conversation. Perhaps it was that sympathy that arises among exiles. Perhaps it was my father’s profession as a straddler of worlds. Perhaps it was the opportunity to confess to a wise, robed figure before a fire in an anonymous inn. Whatever it was, as the artisan gazed into the fire, he began to speak.

‘As a boy, I was visited by a raven, you know. It came in my sleep and took me out flying over the forest that surrounded my homestead. It showed me things that ravens know about. We had adventures together,’ he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Glancing over, he scrutinized us for any hint of amusement, but my dad merely nodded, indicating for the story to continue.

‘The raven was my friend. My only friend. My home was cramped and violent, you see. There was little love in it, and many beatings, so as a lad I came to look forward to dreaming more than waking.’

Gazing into the fire fully lost in his memories, he told us how one night, the raven flew him into a rarely explored part of the forest. There the bird showed him an old chariot overgrown with vines, carved with wondrous designs, that had been part of the first wave of invasions. In the morning, leaping from his bed he ran into the deep woods, where sure enough he found it, exactly as the raven had shown him the night before.

One day, however, he made a mistake: he shared his dreams with his family. They laughed over their drinks, swatted him on the head, and called him a liar. Such things, they said, were only tales among the Chavin, those savages. Was he to grow up to be a useless dreamer? An idiot talking with dumb animals?”

Egil held a hand open to the Temple grounds, as if calling it in as witness to the injustice, and then shook his head. At that moment, Caedmon saw the bard was speaking as much of his own struggle as the distant traveler’s.

“The man looked away from the fire,” Egil continued, “downed his mead, and said in a croaking voice, ‘I doubted then and the raven ceased to appear. I never saw it again. I have been alone ever since.’

“I swear to you,” Egil said turning to look at Caedmon, “his eyes were sparkling coal black in the firelight.

‘Do you see?’ my father murmured.

From the protective outcropping of my dad’s side, I saw the raven plainly in the man’s face, gazing out at us.

I was too young to know the irony of it all, but it was then I determined to never stifle my perception, to never cease listening to the stories of the world – especially if I hear it from a raven.”

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