The man reached down and touched the Raven’s feathers with a weathered hand. The wind shifted in the night and her plumage rose and fell with it. She turned her pit-black eyes to his, but he could not hold the gaze of one he had sentenced to death. The touch was agony enough.
There were lights on the horizon, which took the night in the forest further towards darkness than it knew. They danced on the air currents like ink dropped into water, smudging the sky and dispersing into rivers of hue. Mauve, indigo and the green of winter pines all fed into the black canvas above the trees. The light show reflected in the raven’s eyes, making the shadows deeper and the colours rise in pitch. He fixed his gaze on the sky and prayed for her to break her beady stare.
He wanted to tell her the world would end tonight. That he wouldn’t live on without her and there would be nothing left to know after sunrise. But that would be a lie and another lie would turn his lips to dust.
Perhaps he could set her free, unlock the cuffs about her claws and watch her fade into the blackness? But she would return with armies. She had a duty to her people and her blood; the actions of a fool in love could never answer for a century more of carnage.
He felt the bird turn outwards beneath his fingers, it was time. She had given permission, she had given up. A tiny creature holding so much terrible strength beneath those feathers.
The man lifted the raven and took her to the wooden block waiting on the battlements. Her heart was beating so slowly and unwaveringly. He placed the bird gently with her chest to the jet sky and held a hand across her, leaving a gap between his fingers above her drum-beat heart.
This was the end of a legend in his hands. The lights were still in her eyes and he wished she would close them. The reflected illuminations were moving faster than those they were mirroring and faster than her pulse in his palm. There was fear and hope and sadness and love all dancing together in the glassy shadows looking up at him.
He took a silver dagger from his boot and held it over the space he had made with the other hand on her chest. The raven’s eyes blinked and he knew that he could. The blade seemed to move of its own will down through the soft plumage, flesh and cracking bone. When he pulled it smoothly free from the body, for that was all it now was, the blade was coated in blood the shade that berries stain children’s faces. The raven’s eyes had closed at last and the skin of the drum-heart had split.
The man dropped the dagger and plucked a tail feather from the corpse. He turned and held it up to the sky. Suddenly, the ether shook and swelled with the intense power coursing through it. The lights on the horizon twisted and churned and plaited into one long streaming rope, rushing through the night air towards him. They fed into the plume as though a crystal funnel were pouring lighting-diamonds into its core. Then all was shadow once more, except the feather, which glittered with all the shades of darkness against the sky.