The raven cocked her head and stared at the sleeping woman who’d summoned her. Yet another bat swooped down to hide in the tree across the clearing. The animals had been gathering, individually and in small groups, for hours now. The party they surrounded was oblivious.
A frown creased the horned face of the sleeping woman, and an anxious shudder rippled through the assembled menagerie. The raven hunched down, filled by a sudden, inexplicable sense of being trapped despite the wide clear sky overhead. The woman’s tail curled tighter around her.
One of the party’s animals, an enormous stag, stirred and woke. He snorted in alarm when he sensed the gathering of other creatures. An older badger left the cover of the woods and laid a foot over one of the stag’s. He calmed, and the raven knew the stag, like her, had been drawn by the horned woman, albeit days earlier.
The call, when it came, had been irresistible. The raven had heard of such summonses before, in the whispers of old ones and the stories of the trees. There were tales of two-legs with an affinity for the broader world that sometimes bordered on dominion. In her heart, the raven had always been skeptical of such tales, but now she knew the truth. Such beings did exist, full of power and longing and dreams of wild freedom.
The horned woman dreamed of a small land surrounded by the open, terrifying sea. It was a place of sanctuary for her kind, or so they told themselves. A confused rush of half-memories spoke of the woman’s wanderlust, her rejection, her lost love, her ruined family. The raven could not tell whether she flew from or to – perhaps neither – but certainly she flew.
Another of the party’s animals, a golden hawk, roused itself from its perch over the squat two-leg clad in metal. Before it could raise an alarm, one of the owls settled on a nearby branch and cooed. The hawk’s feathers settled, and it bowed its head in understanding.
The raven wondered if she, too, would be bound in service to the two-legs. They were a ragged bunch, typical of their kind. Such bands were not unknown in these woods. Scars from past conflicts still marked patches of the land as well as many of the trees and beasts. The raven had always tried to keep her distance, until the horned woman’s dreams had called to her tonight.
She understood the woman’s urge to fly away. More than once, the raven had taken leave of others of her kind. Some creatures had solitary spirits. The horned woman was one of these, or at least so her dreams suggested.
The others in her pack thought her a beast-thing herself, and not just for her horns and tail. Her connection to the wild proved her otherness. She was not one to cover herself in beaten metal and swing or stab at others. No, she was one to take long walks in the wild, outside the company of her fellows. For her implement, she took only a smooth branch, a gift from a friendly ash tree. And yet, she could not fly as far as she wanted.
Her comrades told her she would be a hunted thing if she fled. They would lead others in the hunt, as they would a great boar or a dragon. Her power was too great, her connection to her fellow two-legs too weak, for her to be trusted on her own. They made her bring them familiars – the stag, the eagle, a wolf, a serpent – to use as tools and weapons in their own petty ventures.
The raven had gleaned some of this from the initial call, but now the rest came to her in a flood. She shifted her feet on the branch and looked at the others in the odd assemblage. Soft chuffs came from some of the ground-walkers, disgruntled hoots from the owls, and a fluttering of wings from the bats. The horned woman’s eyes opened, then widened as she perceived the ranks of those she’d summoned.
Why are you here? she asked in the silent language of the forest.
We’ve come to help you fly, said the raven, surprising herself by being the first to speak.
But I did not call you.
Your dreams did.
They will not let me.
We will make them, said the stag. The party’s wolf growled her assent, and the eagle and the snake pressed closer to the horned woman.
Wait, said the woman. Some part of me may have called you, but I won’t force anyone to do what they don’t wish. There’s been enough of that. Those who want to leave should do so. There will be no more bondage here.
The raven felt the woman’s presence leave her for a moment. She considered the situation anew. She could hear some of the gathered beasts take their leave. Still…
I am with you, she said to her fellow solitary spirit. Again, she was the first to speak. She was certainly not the last.
Very well, said the horned woman to her new allies. It is time to be free.
The wolf howled, waking the rest of the party.
“What is this?” demanded the big, bare-chested one with the huge blade.
“We told you what the cost of that would be,” whispered the pale, slender one as he pulled an arrow from his quiver. The squat one rapped the blade of his ax.
“Let her run,” he said. “It will be a glorious hunt.”
“Glorious, yes,” said the horned woman. “But a hunt? No.”
The woman raised her arms. The raven dove for the pale one’s eyes. As she flew through the cold night air, a fierce cry came from her beak.