The snow was cold under her bare feet, but her notice of it was cursory, lacking any real emotional response. She could only really attend to one thing at a time and right now, that one thing was her aching heart. Crouching down and curling in on herself, she pressed her knees into her chest, letting her face sink into her palms. Why had she let this happen again? Blinking back tears, her gaze fell on her feet. They were a different shade of pale than the powder-white snow, radiating a luminousness the fallen flakes couldn’t match. First one, then another tear splashed down on her toes. She sniffled as she ran her fingers through her long, tangled hair, then paused. The wind blew through the ice-covered canyon below, and she knew what it would bring.
There would be many coming towards her, sharp eyes, snapping beaks, and glossy black feathers. They would be mad. They had every right to be. She was the heir-elect to the Raven Throne, not some low-ranking fledgling. The flock looked to her as the one who would someday lead them, yet she spent the majority of her time in the village on the edge of the sea.
There was nothing special about the village itself… except for him.
Him, who she had first seen mending a torn fishing net. He rose with the sun, donned oilskin pants and a woolen sweater, and spent the days fishing from his small boat. He came home each night just as the sun slipped below the horizon, outlining the mountains with fire for a few brief, beautiful seconds.
It was never as beautiful as he was, though.
And that was the problem. Nothing was. He was like nothing she’d ever seen before. It wasn’t that she hadn’t come across many humans… she had, and for the most part she’d found them not worth her time. But this one was different.
She wrapped her arms around her knees, not even caring that members of the flock would see her in human form. After all, she was a shape-shifter. That’s what marked her as the Heir-Apparent. She knew it was a great honor, but it was also a curse. She’d been warned by her advisors not to spend too much time as a human, lest she start to become influenced by the particular emotions inherent to that form.
But she hadn’t heeded such advice closely enough.
Instead, she’d savored the experience of life lived in human form, long bones so much heavier than those she was used to as a raven, and smooth skin completely bare of feathers.
She thought back to her last time with him… how his mouth had pressed hungrily against hers as his hands moved over her body. She had tasted the salt on his face as she’d melted into him, wishing the moment would never end.
Yet end it had.
She’d cast a final glance back at the sleeping form before hopping up onto the window sill. From there, insides splintering, she’d launched herself into the sky.
The sound of wings and the occasional caw was growing closer. Lifting her head, she ran her fingers over her wet cheeks. From the sound of it, the entire council had come. Some landed on rocks where the snow had blown away. Others alighted in a nearby tree, almost indistinguishable from the bare, seemingly dead, branches.
She turned her head slightly to make eye contact with the one nearest her.
“Corwyn,” he said, bowing his head deeply as he addressed her.
She gave him a slow nod in return. “Allamoor.”
Her snapping black eyes held his proud, intelligent gaze. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak, but she didn’t know what he expected her to say. That she was sorry? She refused to lie, which meant silence was likely the best option.
Allamoor sighed and lightly shrugged his wings, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Corwyn, why do you torture yourself so?” His gentle voice, along with the words themselves, caught her off-guard. She had expected a lecture, not concern. She shivered slightly, wishing she’d remained in bird form. Her unclad human form was beginning to protest against exposure to the winter elements.
But she couldn’t cry as a raven, and after leaving him again, she’d needed to cry.
“Your Highness, Denifen grows weaker by the day. Soon she’ll no longer be able to shift between forms, and then you will take her place on the Raven Throne.” Allamoor cocked his head sideways. “If you are so divided within yourself, how do you expect to establish a strong, coherent rule?”
“I don’t know,” replied Corwyn honestly. “As a divided being, I don’t know how to be cohesive or even… whole.” She almost added, not without him, but stopped herself.
Allamoor seemed to guess what she was thinking and clucked his beak disapprovingly before speaking again.
“You can only remain in human form for so long. After a time, you will always be called back into Raven form… your true form,” he added in a way that made Corwyn bristle.
“As I am able to turn into a human,” she responded tersely, “clearly that is a part of my true form, too.”
“It is because you are a raven that you are able to shift into a human,” countered the bird indignantly. “You don’t see those born human shifting into ravens, do you?”
Corwyn didn’t want to admit that the elder was right, so instead she scowled and exhaled loudly through her nose. It was nice to have nostrils, to feel the rush of air coursing through her respiratory system.
Her duty was obvious, but, faced with such inevitability, so was what she truly wanted. “There must be a way,” she muttered.
Allamoor gave his wings a single, ominous flap. “So? Are you ready to do what must be done? The new year is upon us.”
Slowly, Corwyn nodded. She had made her decision.
Katie Keridan writes to understand herself, to make sense of the world around her, and to illuminate experiences so that others know they aren’t alone. She is passionate about creative expression and to that end, she is trying to get more of her writing out in front of readers. Eventually, she hopes to make the transition from healthcare provider to full-time writer. When she’s not writing fantasy or poetry, she’s talking about it with her yellow Labrador, Dante, or the humans who are kind enough to listen and love her anyway.