A Split UnkindnessAkril 6-29-07
Ella was sitting with her back against a tree just outside a small town nestled in a large, verdant valley. She planned to find and stay in an inn there for a few nights, performing on the streets in the intervening days. Judging by the town's size and fairly remote location, the men who dwelt within it were probably all simple farmers and craftsmen, and she was sure that even her least complicated magic tricks would astound them and earn her a fair amount of money.
Ella was not one who relied on illusion and misdirection to create what appeared to the untrained mind as magic, however. She was a skilled sorceress, and though she wasn't accomplished enough to turn people into toads and change the course of rivers, she could change roses into robins and conjure rainstorms. The only reason she performed simple magic tricks for a living was to keep her true profession from being found out and risk being branded as a witch – something that she certainly was not. She was a sorceress, which was something entirely different, but people tended to equate the two.
Since Ella was so experienced in magic, she was seldom surprised by any supernatural phenomena that she encountered. A gnome had scurried across a path in the forest that she had been walking along years before, and once she was almost certain that she had glimpsed a fairy out of the corner of her eye.
So, when a glossy raven with a large gold ring around its foot had fluttered down to a low branch a short distance from where she sat and started talking to her, she didn't even gasp as she glanced in its direction.
"Excuse me?" the raven asked. It wasn't the low croak of a voice that Ella had expected – the creature sounded exactly like a man. A rather proud, disdainful man, too, judging by the way he spoke.
"Yes?" Ella asked.
"I need help, and maybe you can provide it."
"Oh?" Ella said, raising an eyebrow. "What sort of help?"
"Well, my brother and I were walking through a forest yesterday when a witch appeared out of nowhere and changed both of us into ravens for no reason. She never told us why she had done so. She just waved her arms and sent me to one part of the country and him to another."
Ella stared quizzically at the raven that moments ago had appeared to be a perfectly normal talking bird.
"And…that's it?" she asked cautiously.
"Yes – well, no," the raven faltered. "Just after she had changed us into ravens, she started telling us about the curse she had just placed on us. I thought it was very strange, her being so nice to us after she had just cast this horrible spell on me and Edgar – that's my brother, by the way…"
"What did she tell you about the curse?" Ella asked.
"She said that unless we broke the curse, we would be ravens for the rest of our lives, except the day of the week on which we were cursed…once every seven days, she said, we would be men from one sunrise to the next one. I suppose that was the hag's way of making the curse a little more bearable…can't imagine why she did it, though…"
"How about breaking the curse?" Ella asked. "Did she tell you how that could be done?"
The raven attempted the avian equivalent of a shrug.
"Yes…she said that she was going to separate us, and that the spell would only be broken if Edgar and I could find each other again. Then she pointed to our legs, and I saw that we each had a gold ring around our right foot. She said, 'These will help you,' then she waved her arms, and I found myself alone in this forest."
Ella gaped at the raven in disbelief. Then she sighed heavily, rubbed her face with her palm and muttered something that would have shocked a priest.
"And you came to me because you think I can help you break this curse?" she muttered.
"All I need to do is find my brother," the raven said. "You can help me look for him, and possibly even figure out how this ring can help – if the witch was telling the truth."
"But why me?" Ella protested. "How did you know that I was familiar with magic?"
The raven's eyes grew large.
"I didn't know that at all!" it cried. "You were just the first human I found after I was brought here…what incredible luck!"
Ella tried not to groan out loud and leaned back against her tree, cursing herself for jumping to conclusions. Still, her heart wouldn't let her abandon the unfortunate enchanted creature that stared intently at her from its branch.
"My name is Marcus," the raven said haughtily, ruffling its feathers.
"Marcus," Ella said, "I'm not quite sure how I can help you at the moment, but for the time being you can stay with me. I may not be willing or able to assist you at all, but I should reach a decision about this matter fairly soon."
Marcus hopped off his branch and fluttered to the ground.
"How soon?" he queried.
Ella paused, recalling what Marcus had said about the particulars of his curse.
"About six days from now," she said.
Ella made her way towards the small town she had been eyeing before Marcus appeared. At first, Marcus flapped or trotted along behind her, but after a few hours, began to complain that it took too much of his strength to keep up with her and that he was fearful of getting attacked by a cat or stepped on by a horse once they entered the town, so Ella grudgingly allowed Marcus to ride along on top of the pack she carried – "But if you mess it up, I'll clip your wings," she warned.
Fortunately, Marcus had the sense to keep quiet once they had reached the town's outskirts, but nonetheless, people still stared oddly at Ella. She supposed that she was a rather unusual sight to them – a woman with golden hair and alabaster skin, wearing a traveler's clothes and a bulky knapsack, with a raven perched on top of it…but once everyone saw that she was a mere traveling magician, they would come to understand her eccentric appearance – and hopefully wouldn't suspect her of being anything but a simple street performer.
Ella found a small but well-kept inn near the town's center, and, as she anticipated, her magic tricks were well received and earned her many coins from the villagers in the town square. She instructed Marcus to stay in her room, which Marcus reluctantly agreed was the safest place for him, and Ella would bring him bread and water twice a day. Though she couldn't be sure what Marcus the man was truly like until the day he regained his human form, she sympathized with Marcus the raven, even though he was rather feisty and arrogant. Considering what had happened to him, though, Ella couldn't blame him.
Six days after Ella had met Marcus, she woke up to find a young man lying asleep on the floor of her room, with the raven nowhere to be seen. Even if she hadn't known what would happen on this day, it was all too apparent what had taken place.
She rose, dressed herself, and gently nudged Marcus until he awakened. Marcus blinked groggily several times, then sprang to his feet in surprise, the sensation of regaining his normal appearance rendering him completely flabbergasted.
While he was still in his bewildered state, Ella examined him carefully from head to foot. Oddly, he was clothed, but he was wearing a strange gray tunic and trousers and a pair of soft leather boots. The collar of the tunic was lined with an unfamiliar material that Ella soon realized was raven feathers.
The man who wore this odd attire was much younger than Ella, with a slim build and prominent muscles. His hair was dark brown and neatly trimmed, and his features were typical of the dashing heroic figures described in many a folktale. His eyes were a steely blue-gray, and his face had just the right proportions to make him the very picture of handsomeness.
Ella looked Marcus over, and found him a very attractive man in terms of appearance. Such a man would have no trouble at all finding a wife, and his looks would doubtlessly make other men respect and envy him. She was starting to wonder whether Marcus had married already or not, but she quickly told herself to cease such thoughts. It would do her no good to long for this man as her husband…or any other man, for that matter. She had chosen this way of life, and now she had to accept all the downsides that came with it, no matter how unfair they were.
As she was beating back her romantic fantasies, Marcus finally seemed to become fully conscious. He blinked and stared up at Ella with confusion at first, then, after a moment, recognition.
"Good morning," he muttered.
Ella echoed the greeting. There was a long, awkward silence during which a wagon rumbled along a street adjacent to the inn.
"So…this is what you looked like before you were cursed," Ella said, immediately regretting her choice of words.
"Yes," Marcus said, rubbing his face with his right hand. He suddenly looked shocked and pulled the hand away, staring at it in disbelief.
"What is it?" Ella asked. As she stared at Marcus's hand, however, she saw what had frightened him as clear as day. Around the third finger was a gold ring, identical in every way to the one Marcus had worn on his leg as a raven.
"Now how the devil did that get there?" Marcus wondered out loud.
While Marcus the raven had been meeting Ella and spending his days in the comfort of her room in the inn, his brother Edgar had been having a much more difficult time. After the witch had cursed him, like Marcus, he had found himself in a thick wood, with nothing to his name but a gold ring around his right leg. He had tried to find out where he was, but to no avail. In the days that followed, he had almost been caught by a hawk, a fox, and an owl, been viciously harassed by various smaller birds less than half his size, and had gone hungry nearly every single day.
Edgar was so busy trying to avoid being killed that his becoming human seven days after he was cursed came as a complete shock to him, but didn't make him feel any less vulnerable in his present predicament. Still, being a man again helped him think a little more clearly, and he decided to start traveling in one direction, hoping that he would soon find a way out of the woods. He hadn't done so by the time his single day and night as a human had ended, but he still continued his journey, and three days later, as the sun was growing low, he reached a city surrounded by many smaller villages. His spirits renewed, he flew straight for the nearest farmhouse, a small but attractive dwelling with a large field of wheat, a small garden, and a lush pasture next to it. He fervently hoped that whoever lived in the house would help him in some way.
He landed at one of the house's many windows and peered inside. He found himself looking into a sparsely furnished room with a wooden table in the center, at which two people were seated, a man and a woman. The man was sitting with his back to the window, so he didn't notice Edgar's appearance. The woman, however, was at the table's opposite end, and she did.
Before Edgar could even open his beak to speak, the woman's eyes grew wide as she spotted him, and she began gasping like a fish out of the water. The man spun around to face Edgar, who suddenly realized his mistake: most superstitions portrayed ravens as birds of ill omen, and even seeing or hearing one from a distance was said to be unlucky. He didn't know what having a raven perch in a house's window presaged for the people who lived in the house, but he was quite certain that they wouldn't welcome that raven inside with open arms.
"Out!" the man bellowed, waving his arms at Edgar in an attempt to frighten him away. "Out of our house, vile creature! Be gone!"
The woman had almost started to cry with hysteria, and as terrified as Edgar was, he quickly realized that begging the man not to hurt him would only frighten the couple more. He flew from the windowsill and landed on the roof, where the man couldn't see him. He waited until the chaos inside the house had died down, then he flew down to a patch of ground a safe distance from the window and began cautiously calling out to the house's occupants.
"Sir? Madam? I have something to tell you, if you would please come to the window and speak with me."
After a deathly still pause, the man slowly approached the window and leaned out. In the dying light, Edgar was difficult to make out against the dark soil, but the man's eyes soon found him nonetheless.
"Please," Edgar pleaded. "Let me say what I have to say."
The man paused for a moment, probably contemplating whether a talking raven was more or less evil than the non-talking kind, Edgar guessed. Finally, the man cautiously let Edgar tell his story, the story about how he and his brother had been cursed and separated, and how the only way the curse could be broken was by finding Marcus again.
"This is a fascinating and unfortunate tale you tell," the man said after Edgar's narration was complete, "But how do I know that it is not a mere contrivance fabricated by you in order to gain our pity and welcome you into our home, where your presence will plague us with misfortunes and ill luck?"
"If I'm truly symbolic of bad luck," Edgar protested angrily, "I bring bad luck only to myself. I've spent the last several days fighting for my life in an unforgiving forest after having this spell cast on my brother and me with no apparent motive other than spite. If you can't judge me as a raven, you must judge me as a man. Four days from now, I will become human again for one day and one night. Perhaps then you can truly decide whether I am a harbinger of misfortune or not."
The man snorted disapprovingly, but agreed to wait for the raven's return in four days' time. Edgar thanked him graciously and flew off into the night. Although Edgar guessed that there could be other people in the village that might have treated him more hospitably, somehow he felt that the man and woman in this house would eventually accept him, and possibly even help him find Marcus, as impossible an idea as it seemed. He wasn't sure why he felt that way about the couple, but it might have had something to do with the ring around his leg. For the last few days, it had felt ice-cold against its skin. Now, however, it was only slightly cool.
Edgar spent the next few days in the rafters of the couple's barn, staying out of sight as much as he could. If the man or the woman ever noticed him, they gave no sign that they had. The only eatables he could find typically had wings and six legs; it wasn't the best selection, but he didn't want to risk getting caught stealing scraps of human food, since the chance of being spotted was simply too great.
In the wee hours of the fourth day, Edgar flew to the farmhouse and waited until he heard the couple inside awaken and begin to prepare for their day, which was just as the light of day was starting to illuminate the sky. He hopped onto a windowsill, which turned out to be the same one he had landed on before. Inside the house, the man and woman were just sitting down to breakfast. When the woman noticed him, she looked startled, but not nearly as alarmed as she had been when she first saw Edgar. Likewise, when the man turned to face Edgar, he looked suspiciously at him, but didn't try to chase Edgar away as he had before.
"This is the day I said I would become a man again," Edgar said. "I wanted you to witness the event so you would be assured that I was telling the truth."
The man nodded silently.
"May I please enter?" Edgar requested.
The man's brow furrowed. He turned to the woman, who looked nervously at Edgar, but after a moment, nodded silently. The man turned back to Edgar and beckoned him in.
Edgar hopped off the sill and landed on the dirt floor of the farmhouse, several feet away from the couple's table.
"So…" the man said after a long pause. "Shouldn't you be human by now?"
Edgar craned his neck and stared at the window, which he couldn't see through from where he stood.
"Has the sun risen yet?" he asked, moving away from the window in the hopes of seeing out of it.
"Yes, it has."
It was the woman that spoke these words. From where she sat, she could see the coming day quite clearly. The man turned in his chair and nodded in agreement with the woman's statement. Edgar, puzzled that he was still a raven and wanting to look at the sunrise for himself, thrust himself into the air with a hop and a flap of his wings. No sooner had the first golden rays of the day touched him than there was a sudden swirl of white light and a small whirlwind of black feathers. The couple stared in astonishment as the light and the feathers vanished as quickly as they had appeared, leaving a young man dressed in a dark gray tunic and trousers, standing in the middle of a small circle of raven's feathers.
The man blinked and shook his head confusedly a few times, then straightened himself and cleared his throat.
"Er…Good day," he said as politely and casually as he was able. "I suppose I should introduce myself…my name is Edgar. And you are…?"
"Terrence," said the man. "And this is my wife, Katherine."
A few more salutations were muttered. After another awkward pause, Edgar spoke again:
"May I please have something to eat?" he asked. "Grasshoppers and beetles didn't satiate me very well."
Terrence and Katherine's anxieties about Edgar being an evil omen were quickly dispelled as they got to know him while they ate their breakfast. Though Katherine had feared that Edgar was possibly a wicked sorcerer that had purposefully changed himself into a raven, the more she looked at him, the more implausible the idea became.
Edgar seemed like the last person in the world that would do such a dastardly thing. He was a tall but lanky man, with unkempt mouse brown hair that looked as if he cut it himself. His eyes were a gentle blue, with a large mole beneath the right one, and his eyebrows arced slightly upward, giving him a sympathetic, almost worried appearance. Though he was very polite to Terrence and Katherine and thanked them profusely for trusting him every chance he got, there was a nervous, insecure quality to his movements, as if he was just as afraid of the couple as they had been of him as a raven.
When breakfast was over, Terrence rose from his seat and told Edgar that he was going to tend to the livestock, and that Edgar was welcome to stay in the farmhouse. Terrence promised to try to think of some way to help Edgar while he was working. Edgar thanked Terrence again, and Terrence left.
"So," Katherine said softly when she and Edgar were alone, "This curse that that witch put on you changes you into a raven for six days?"
"Yes," Edgar nodded. "I'll be one again tomorrow morning."
Silence. Edgar softly tapped his fingers on the table, occasionally glancing up at Katherine. She was quite different than any woman he had seen before. Though she was possibly a decade older than him, she was still stunningly beautiful. She had short, soft black hair, deep brown eyes and skin of a glowing brown color that resembled that of the people who lived just north of the southern sea.
As Edgar's nervous tapping continued, a flash from one of his fingers caught Katherine's eye.
"That ring…" she said. "Wasn't there a ring on your foot when you…when you were a raven?"
Edgar lifted his hand and examined it.
"Yes, but this and the one you saw are both the same ring. It just appears on my finger when I change back, for some reason."
He stretched his arms and yawned.
"Are you very tired?" Katherine asked. "There's only one bed in this house, but you can rest in it today, since we won't be using it."
"Thank you," Edgar said.
Katherine shifted uncomfortably in her seat, then rose and cleared the dishes from the table.
"I've got a lot of work to do in the kitchen," she said briskly. "If you need anything, that's where I'll be."
Katherine stood at the only table in the kitchen, kneading a large ball of bread dough. The astonishing events of that morning were spinning in her mind. Curses, enchantments, magic…such things simply weren't right. They were almost always evil in nature, and why some people were fascinated by it was beyond her. It made her wonder just what Edgar had done to be subjected to such a cruel fate.
"Can I help you?"
The sound of Edgar's voice made her jump; she had been so deep in thought that she didn't even know he had entered the room and walked up beside her.
"I'm sorry," Edgar said as Katherine tuned to face him. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"Don't worry about it," Katherine smiled. "But did you ask if you could help me?"
"Yes," Edgar nodded. "You seemed pretty busy, and I thought I could be of assistance."
Katherine almost laughed as she looked down at the dough she was holding.
"I appreciate your offer, Edgar, but the kitchen isn't exactly the place for a man."
"I know…I'm just not that strong or knowledgeable enough to do the sort of work your husband does all day, and I felt that I should be repaying you for feeding me and inviting me to stay here in some way, so I thought it would only be fair if I helped you with your chores."
His voice was kind, yet there was another emotion in it that made Katherine pause her kneading and slowly turn his way again. When Edgar saw her face, his soft features hardened suddenly.
"I'm not trying to seduce you," he said sternly. "That's the last thing I would think of doing to you."
Katherine wasn't sure how to respond to this. She looked down uncertainly, thought for a moment, then looked at Edgar again.
"Do you think you can use a churn?" she asked.
"I don't know, but I'll certainly try," Edgar said, his face returning to its soft, peaceful state. Katherine pointed out the churn and the milk, and Edgar wasted no time in pouring the latter into the former.
"I'm sorry if it seemed as if I was misjudging you," Katherine said after a few minutes. "It's just been so long since there's been another man in this house, and…well, I was just afraid that…"
"I see your point," Edgar said as he worked the churn's dasher. "I know there are a lot of men who make it their goal to make any woman they desire their own, regardless of whether she's married or not."
He sighed heavily and gazed heavenward.
"What fools…" he said almost inaudibly.
Marcus didn't try to repay Ella for helping him in any way that same day. In fact, he left the room at the inn almost the minute he awakened and realized that he was no longer a raven, without even informing Ella where he was going. The pair had traveled to an inn in a different town two days ago, where Ella continued her magic act and Marcus remained cooped up in her room.
Given how restless Marcus had become, Ella wasn't too concerned about this disappearance, but there was still a tiny worm of worry gnawing away at her. To her, Marcus seemed like the sort whose pride could easily land him in all sorts of trouble, and her suspicions were proved quite correct towards the end of the following night.
She was awakened early that morning by a thundering of approaching steps and the slam of a door: the one to her room. She sat bolt upright in her bed to see Marcus leaning against the door, his clothing rumpled, his brow slick with sweat, his chest heaving and his eyes panic-stricken.
"What the devil happened?" Ella asked, unable to mask the anxiety in her voice.
"I met a girl outside the tavern," Marcus panted when he finally caught his breath. "We talked for a little while, then the next thing I knew, I'd gone home with her and spent the night with her."
Ella stared open-mouthed at Marcus for a moment, then glared suspiciously at him.
"How much did you have to drink at that tavern?" she asked.
"I…I don't remember," Marcus gasped, "But that's not the point. I was with this girl until just a short time ago – a man entered the house and he discovered us before I could hide."
Ella narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.
"And he was her husband," she deduced. Marcus gritted his teeth and nodded shamefacedly.
"She said he had gone to a town that was a day's walk from here and that he wouldn't return until the following day," he said, his voice quickening and becoming more and more frantic. "He must have come home in a cart or on horseback…Anyway, I got out of that house as quickly as I could, and he came right after me. I tried to lose him in the streets, but that man must have a nose like a bloodhound…I don't know how else he could have followed me this far…"
"'This far?'" Ella repeated nervously. "Where is he now?"
"He's probably near this inn by this time," Marcus shuddered.
Ella ran to the window, which fortuitously looked directly onto the street that ran by the entrance. Peering down this street, she saw a man that resembled a shaved bear with a ruddy complexion and a bloodthirsty expression lumbering towards the inn.
Ella quickly backed away before the brute could see her, muttering something that would have shocked a member of the aristocracy. Marcus became even more frantic as she did so.
"I knew it," he cried. "Ella, please, you've got to help me! I can't run from that monster anymore, and I know he'll kill me if he finds me!"
"But how in the blazes can I help you?" Ella asked.
"I don't know!" Marcus yelped. "Just hide me or turn me invisible…anything!"
Ella was about to confess that she had no idea how to spare Marcus from the wrath of the man whose wife he had had his way with when she glanced at the window she had just stepped away from, looking not at the street below, but the ridge of mountains that lined the horizon.
"I don't think I need to do anything, Marcus," Ella said with a sudden calmness. "Look."
She pointed towards the window and Marcus stared at it. At that very moment, the curve of the sun had risen above the distant peaks, and as the new day dawned, so did the realization of what it meant for Marcus.
The young man stared dumbly at the sunrise for a moment, then muttered a very soft "Oh."
Then a blazing ball of light and a swirling of feathers enveloped him for a moment, and when that moment had passed, a raven with a gold ring around its foot was standing in his place.
Before the woman or the bird could speak, there was the sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs to the inn's upper rooms, followed by the sound of pounding on a neighboring door and an outraged, yet slightly winded bellow. Without a word, the raven took to the air and flew to one of the bedposts, where he ruffled his feathers and assumed a somnolent posture. Ella tiptoed to the bed, lay down upon it and pulled the blankets up to her chin.
The irate husband rapped on three more doors before reaching Ella's. Before she could groggily ask who it was, the intruder swung the door wide and glared about the sparsely furnished room with bloodshot eyes.
"A man who shared my wife's bed last night fled to this inn," he growled. "Where is he?"
"He's not here," Ella mumbled groggily. "No one here but me and my raven."
The enormous man in the doorway squinted at the small form in the bed and the feathery form perched on the bedpost. Then he snorted like a bull and stomped out, slamming the door behind him and continuing his jealous search.
"Are you completely mad?" Ella shrieked at Marcus after she was certain that the man looking for him had left the inn and was out of earshot. "Sleeping with a woman that you knew was married? Do you have no morals at all?"
"I…I…" Marcus stammered, "I'm not really sure how it happened now…it just seemed like a good idea at the time…"
Ella suddenly realized something and narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"You had a few drinks at the tavern, didn't you?"
"Well…yes," Marcus admitted sheepishly.
"And where did you get the money to buy those drinks?"
Marcus didn't answer. Ella opened the pouch of coins that she kept tucked in the bottom of her knapsack and founds its contents much depleted. She turned and glared at Marcus, who took to the air and lighted upon a rafter high out of Ella's reach.
"You ungrateful thief!" she snarled. "Is this how you repay me for agreeing to help you with your little curse?"
"You haven't exactly been helping me," Marcus snapped. "We've just been moving from town to town…"
"…In the hopes that we encounter your brother!" Ella yelled. "I've been asking some of the people I meet if they've seen a raven with a gold ring on his leg, but nobody I've talked to admits to seeing such a thing! I've also been feeding you and letting you stay with me!"
"Well, I'm sorry for wanting to have a good time, then," Marcus snarled, turning away from her.
"A good time?" Ella repeated. "A foolish time is more like it. I suppose you've gotten completely drunk and gone home with dozens of married girls more times than you can count, haven't you?"
Marcus drew breath to speak, then paused.
"Actually, I haven't." he said, his voice suddenly very slow and calm. "I went out to a lot of taverns and drank a lot…but no, I've never shared a bed with a married woman until last night."
"You didn't?" Ella asked, puzzled. "Why not? Did someone stop you?"
Marcus was silent. Ella pondered the conundrum for a moment, and then an answer came to her.
"It was your brother, wasn't it?"
"Yes. It was."
"As you've probably noticed, I don't get along that well with others," Edgar said to Katherine. "I never had any friends growing up except Marcus."
"Was it the same for Marcus?" Katherine asked.
"No, no," Edgar said. "He was nothing like me. It seemed like every boy in town was his friend when we were children, and when we grew up, even if we entered a tavern and nobody there knew him, they would all know him and like him before closing time."
Katherine nodded reflectively. It had been seven days since she and Terrence had invited Edgar into their house, and after six days of "ravenhood," Edgar had once again regained his humanity. He hadn't done much during those days except rest on a beam in the house, eat the food Katherine offered to him and watch Terrence tending his cows and seeing how his crop of wheat was coming along.
As a raven, there wasn't much besides that that he could do, though it was apparent that he wanted to do more, and he became restless and frustrated at times. On multiple occasions, he tried talking with Katherine, but he sounded so uncomfortable that it made Katherine even more reluctant to hold up her end of the conversation for long. She was reluctant enough being in the presence of a talking raven. She still couldn't suppress her unease at having something enchanted under her roof.
When Edgar had become a man again, however, he seemed to change in mind as well as body. He was much friendlier and eager to help Katherine in any way that he could, though he still occasionally seemed anxious and withdrawn. While Katherine tried desperately to find things for him to do, Edgar started half-jokingly coming up with ways he could earn his keep when he was a raven.
"I could chase the mice out of the field," he suggested, "Or eat any pests that creep into your garden, or find cows that have strayed far from the herd."
Katherine laughed at his ideas, but her smile wasn't just one of bemusement. She liked the young man and his kindness, and longed to repay it in some way, yet breaking the curse seemed almost impossible to her. How and where in the world could someone find a raven with a gold ring around its leg?
Edgar looked out the window at the sun, which was turning bright red as it set.
"Were you close to Marcus?" Katherine asked.
"After our parents died, all we had were each other," he said. "Even though I was the oldest, Marcus looked after me as much as I looked after him. We went everywhere together. Sometimes one of us would get the other out of trouble, or keep him from getting into trouble in the first place. If one of us couldn't do something, the other could always do it for him."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Edgar said, "Marcus likes spending time in the taverns. He drinks, talks with others, things every man does in a tavern. But the drink always seems to go to his head, and he'll start bragging, yelling and swearing, and he'll invariably land himself in some sort of a scrape. I've told him over and over again to be careful, but he falls into the same pattern time and time again, even if he doesn't drink at all. He's the friendliest man you'll ever meet, but he's the most reckless, foolish one as well."
Edgar lowered his voice and leaned closer to Katherine.
"I must admit that he's really not that wise. That's why I would always go with him to the taverns, and when he lost control of that big mouth of his, I steered him out of there before he did something he would regret. As for me, when I had trouble talking to somebody else, he would speak for me or tell me what to do."
He sighed heavily and stared at the vibrant sunset.
"I guess we started to get a little tired of always having to watch over each other. That day in the woods when we were cursed, we were talking about going separate ways and living on our own. Maybe that witch put this spell on us to show us what living apart would be like for us…supplemented with a nasty magical twist."
"Maybe she wanted you to stay together," Katherine said.
"Perhaps," Edgar mused, "But why go out of her way to place such an elaborate enchantment upon us, then? What does she gain from this?"
The farmhouse door creaked open before Katherine could reply. Terrence's voice rang out through the house and Katherine ran to greet him. Edgar followed her and bade good evening to Terrence as Terrence kissed his wife and removed his coat.
"Any luck today?" Edgar asked hopefully.
Terrence shook his head.
"No," he said sadly. "I'm sorry, lad."
Edgar's shoulders drooped. For the past few days, Terrence had been stopping by the town marketplace and asking the shopkeepers whether they had heard about a raven with a gold ring around its foot from any of their customers. No one had replied in the affirmative so far, and when some of the shopkeepers had suspiciously asked why he was so interested in finding this raven, Terrence told them that the raven was Katherine's pet, something which Katherine hadn't found amusing at all.
Edgar had contemplated searching for Marcus himself, but he hadn't the faintest idea where to start looking, and he didn't know how to ask people whether they had seen a raven with a gold ring on without sounding like a halfwit. He had enough difficulties talking to people about normal matters, but asking about something like this was simply out of the question.
It seemed like all Edgar could do was wait and hope that Terrence would hear some news of Marcus.
So he waited.
Ella was still quite angry with Marcus for stealing her earnings, and her way of getting back at him was forcing him to be her "assistant" during her act when he was a raven. Unsurprisingly, Marcus had refused at first, but after Ella had threatened to stop feeding him, he soon relented.
After Ella made an unlit candle vanish into thin air, she was almost as delighted as the audience as Marcus swooped low over their heads with the candle in his claws, returning it to her waiting hand. It was a much more impressive display than having the candle be found in the pocket of an audience member, a trick which she had relied on nearly every time in the past. When she counted the coins she had gained after her act was over, she found that she had earned nearly twice as much as she normally did, and she left the town the following morning in a very cheery mood. Marcus's mood, however, was anything but cheery.
"I'll be sure to start setting some money aside for you," Ella said to him, "Since now you're earning it too."
Marcus "hmphed" indignantly from his perch atop Ella's knapsack. The path Ella was walking along presently forked, and she took the right fork.
"I think the nearest town is about two days from here," she said after a few minutes of walking, "And there are plenty of farms on the way there that we can stop at."
"Hmph," Marcus repeated.
"Are you going to do anything besides grunt in response to everything I say, or should I just shut up?" Ella asked.
"Stop," Marcus said.
"Fine, fine, I will. Let me know when you want to talk again, crabby bird."
"I meant stop walking," Marcus said urgently.
Ella did. She looked warily over her shoulder at Marcus, who was standing as rigidly as if he were carved out of obsidian. When he saw Ella staring at him, he hopped gingerly onto her arm and lifted the leg that bore the gold ring.
"Feel this," he said, shaking his foot and making the ring bounce.
Ella touched the ring with the tip of her finger and drew it back in surprise. The ring was as cold as ice, and it wasn't a chilly day.
"It started out warm, but it's been getting colder since we've been on this path," Marcus said, all spite gone from his voice. "I didn't really notice it until you turned right when the path split."
Ella stared at the ring, then glanced over her shoulder.
"What do you think we should do? Go back and take the left fork?"
"It's worth a try," Marcus shrugged, hopping onto Ella's knapsack again.
Ella turned and made her way back up the path, soon reaching the fork.
"It doesn't seem quite as cold now," Marcus said.
Ella took the path that led left. For some time, she and Marcus were silent, then Marcus spoke again:
"It's definitely warmer now. I think it's slowly getting warmer as we follow this path."
"That's fascinating, Marcus," Ella said sarcastically, "But why is it doing that? And more importantly, why should I follow a path that for all I know doesn't reach a town for another month just so that ring can get warmer?"
"Well…I don't really know…" Marcus mumbled. Suddenly Ella stopped walking so suddenly that Marcus nearly toppled from his perch.
"Wait," she said, "You and your brother both have those rings, don't you?"
"Yes, I think so…"
"And after that witch told you about the only way to lift the curse, she said something about those rings being able to help you lift it, didn't she?"
"Yes…yes, she did…" Marcus said, beginning to see what Ella was hinting at. "You mean…you think this ring's getting hotter is a way of telling me that…that I'm getting closer to Edgar?"
"Still, there's only one way to find out for certain," she said. "We'll just have to keep going along whatever path heats that ring."
"Good Lord," Marcus breathed. "If this works…for such a complicated curse, that witch certainly gave us an easy way to break it."
Ella shook her head at the bizarreness of the situation, then chuckled and muttered something that would have shocked the average townsman.
"What's it like?" Katherine asked Edgar. "Being a raven, I mean."
Edgar looked shyly at her, then looked down and shook his head.
"You'd have to be one yourself to know what it's truly like," he said. "It's so difficult to describe."
"If you don't want to talk about it, I understand…"
"It's not that," Edgar said, tugging nonchalantly at one of the feathers that lined his collar. "I just can't think of any words that describe it adequately. 'Small'…'feathery'…'light'…they just don't work."
"Is it pleasant or unpleasant?" Katherine asked.
"I suppose that would depend on the person. For someone who is tired of being bound to the earth his entire life, all the inconveniences and dangers of being a bird would be ignored when the power of flight is his. For others, it is torturous, being in a different body, at the mercy of the elements, being prone to starvation and sickness, and living each day in fear of being killed by a hunter or a wild beast."
"But how is it for you?" Katherine asked.
Edgar thought for a moment.
"It's difficult at times, but your letting me stay here has made it much more endurable."
"I'm glad of that," Katherine said. "You've been a good friend to Terrence and me."
From where Edgar and Katherine stood looking out over the pasture, they could see the wide green meadows that went on for hundreds of yards before being swallowed up by thick forests. The sky was a pale blue with fleecy clouds dotting it, and a cool breeze was blowing from the east.
Near the wooden fence that surrounded the pasture, several chaffinches were hopping about in the low grass, chattering noisily as they moved. Katherine watched them with interest.
"When you are a raven," she said quietly, "Do you understand the language of other birds?"
"Then do you only understand the language of other ravens?"
"No," Edgar said. "I can only understand and speak human language."
Katherine smiled, but her eyes were sympathetic.
"Another trick of that witch, eh?" she asked. "It seems like nothing that crone did to you has any real reason behind it."
"I know," Edgar said dully.
"You did excellently today," Ella told Marcus. "Except for what you did after I conjured up those flowers."
She and Marcus had reached another town that turned out to be nearly three days from the last one, but had been unable to find an inn to stay at. Fortunately, the owners of one of the larger houses had a spare bedroom that they let Ella stay in. Night had fallen, but neither Marcus nor Ella felt tired yet.
"What did I do again?" Marcus asked from his perch on the foot of the bed.
"You said 'Pretty flowers' the way a drunk parrot would," Ella said crossly.
"What was wrong with that?" Marcus protested, flicking his wings. "It got a few laughs out of the audience and I wasn't insulting anybody!"
"It doesn't matter what you said," Ella said, pacing the floor, "It's how you said it."
"So what was wrong with how I said it?"
"You didn't sound like a raven," Ella said, sitting down on the bed. "You sounded like a man imitating a raven. When people see a raven, they don't expect to hear it speak with a human voice. If you say something during one of my acts again, there may be some townsfolk in the audience ready to accuse me of being a witch and turning one of their lot into a raven."
"But, you are a witch – "
Ella swatted at Marcus with an outspread palm. The raven ducked, but Ella's hand still struck the top of his head.
"Ow," he squawked, sounding almost exactly like a real raven. "Hey, I have to think with that head!"
"I am not a witch," Ella said slowly, the words smoldering as they left her lips. "I am a sorceress. Those are two entirely different entities."
For once in his life, Marcus didn't respond with a witty retort. Instead, he looked at Ella closely – her golden hair, her delicate skin, her deep brown eyes – and decided to ask her something that he had been wondering for some time:
"Ella…why haven't you found yourself a man?"
Ella glared daggers at Marcus, who flinched nervously and began looking for a rafter to fly to.
"What?" she snarled.
"I…I mean…what I'm saying is you're very beautiful," Marcus faltered. "And you've got a great personality too. And you're nice…when you're not like this, I mean."
"So…so I'm surprised that you haven't found yourself a husband deserving of you and settled down instead of moving from town to town, doing sorcery disguised as cheap magic tricks just to earn a few coins."
Ella continued glaring at Marcus, trying not to let the sadness that had suddenly welled up within her show. There had been many men that she had admired, men whose voices or appearances alone had made her heart miss several beats. But over and over she had told herself to leave them alone, that it was wrong to desire them, that giving herself to them would only result in heartbreak or worse.
"I can't love a man," Ella said coldly.
"Why the devil not?" Marcus cried.
"I am a sorceress," Ella said. "A user of powerful magic."
"Have you ever heard of a happily married couple where the woman was a witch or a sorceress? Or the man was a sorcerer or wizard?"
"No…no, I haven't…"
"That's because they don't exist," Ella said, anger rising in her voice. "Magic users can't love. If they have the misfortune to fall in love, either the sorcerer or sorceress ends up stripped of his or her powers, the person they love leaves them when they discover who the magic user truly is, or the person they love is accidentally destroyed by magic in a fit of rage."
"You can't love someone and be a sorcerer at the same time?" Marcus asked.
"So I've gathered," Ella said. "My mother knew magic, and the only man she ever loved – my father – abandoned her when he discovered who she was. I don't want to have the same thing happen to me."
"She told you this thing about not being able to love?"
Ella was silent for a moment.
"Now that I think about it…no, she didn't."
"And you've never, ever loved a man?"
"Is that because you can't…or you won't?"
Ella turned and stared quizzically at Marcus, who spoke once more before she could respond, realizing that yet again, he had said too much.
"Um…er, we're leaving town tomorrow, aren't we?"
"Yes," said Ella quietly.
"And we'll head in whatever direction this ring tells us to go, right?"
"Well…I suppose we'd better get to sleep, then. Good night."
Marcus flapped up to one of the rafters and assumed the familiar pose of a bird readying itself for sleep, ruffling his feathers and drawing his head into his chest. His question had had such an effect on Ella that she didn't even attempt to engage him in conversation again. She merely sat on the small bed for a long time, thinking.
Katherine sat idly at the dining room table. Edgar, who had once again become a raven, was perched on the back of the chair opposite her.
"You know," Katherine said, "You keep saying that you find it hard to talk with others, yet you seem to have no difficulties in talking with me."
"Do you know why?"
"I'm not sure," Edgar said, "But other people tend to frighten me. Even Marcus frightens me at times, but you…you don't frighten me as much."
Katherine was a little puzzled by these words. She found it odd that although Edgar claimed to not be afraid of her, even after all the weeks they had spent together, his enchantment still made Katherine slightly afraid of him. Perhaps her fear made her more approachable somehow?
Yet now, after all this time, Katherine had started to realize that perhaps ravens weren't the ominous harbingers of ill fate that they were said to be. Even though Edgar wasn't a true raven, surely real ravens couldn't be that different from him. In fact, there was a dignified elegance in his sleek, shaggy ebony plumage, heavy curved bill and shining back eyes. There was just that unpleasant reminder that Edgar was under a spell that tugged at Katherine's memory.
Edgar suddenly glanced down at his right leg and began shaking it gently. The ring around it caught the light and made it dance wildly around the room.
"Have you ever tried taking that thing off?" Katherine asked. "When it's on your finger and not your foot?"
"Several times," Edgar said. "It's not stuck on, but I still can't get it off…and I wish I could."
"Is it still getting hotter?"
"Yes, it is." Edgar muttered.
The door suddenly burst open and Terrence charged into the dining room, his chest heaving. It was several seconds before he had breath enough to speak:
"Edgar…the butcher said that a traveler told him that he saw a raven in a magic show in one of the towns north of here, and he was certain that the raven had a gold ring on his leg!"
Edgar was so startled by this news that he nearly fell from his perch. Katherine gaped in astonishment at her husband and the cursed man whose salvation suddenly didn't seem that unreachable anymore.
"Did the traveler say how far north this town was?" Edgar asked.
"I think the butcher said the traveler told him it was less than a day's journey from here," Terrence said.
"I've got to start heading north, then," Edgar cried, taking off and heading towards the window behind Katherine's chair. Katherine quickly rose to her feet and stood directly in front of the window, blocking his way.
"No," she said firmly. "You can't go alone, Edgar; it's too dangerous. I'm coming with you."
Edgar fluttered to the floor and stared at Katherine, blinking in surprise.
"If you're going, then so am I," said Terrence. "I want to help this lad regain his humanity as much as you do, but first I'd better pack some food and supplies. I don't know how long we're going to be looking for this brother of his."
When Marcus and Ella began making their way south, Marcus was constantly wiggling his right leg and complaining about the heat of his ring, which seemed to be growing more extreme with every step Ella took. Ella was so caught up in the suspense of the moment that she wasn't even annoyed by Marcus's constant blather.
After a half hour of reporting how hot the ring was becoming every few minutes, Marcus suddenly discovered that the ring wasn't only growing hotter, but tugging at his leg at the same time. He explained to Ella how it felt like an invisible cord was attached to the ring and being pulled by an unseen hand.
"And you think we should allow ourselves to be dragged along by the hand that holds this cord?" Ella asked.
"I've come too far to give up now that I've gotten this close," Marcus cried valiantly.
"You mean we've come this far," Ella said. "Or to be specific, I've brought you this far."
"Fine, fine," Marcus said. "Still, we shouldn't back down now!"
"We shouldn't?" Ella asked coolly.
Marcus stared impertinently at Ella for a moment while Ella stared solemnly at Marcus. Finally, Marcus sighed and shook his head.
"All right," he groaned. "I'd very much like to continue wherever this bracelet leads me. Could you please take me there?"
Ella smiled smugly.
"Certainly," she said sweetly. "Which way is the ring telling you to go now?"
"That way," said Marcus flatly, pointing to the right with his wing.
Ella obediently turned right and began picking her way over the uneven, scrubby ground that lined the sides of the road. Though she had the slight suspicion that she was going to land herself in some sort of trouble, somehow putting the arrogant Marcus in his place made everything seem worth it.
"And thank you for asking so politely," she said.
"It's been getting hotter ever since we left the house," Edgar said, peering at the ring around his leg. "It has to be its way of signaling me that I'm getting closer to Marcus."
"It must be," said Terrence. "I just hope we find your brother before that thing starts to burn you."
Though Edgar had flown along the path Katherine and Terrence were walking along for the first hour of their journey, fatigue soon set in, and when he was unable to keep up with the couple by walking, Katherine let him ride on her shoulder.
The path they were currently on curved right suddenly, bordering a dense tract of forest and continuing east for some distance. As the trio continued along this path, Edgar suddenly asked Katherine and Terrence to stop.
"It's this ring," he whispered anxiously to Katherine. "It seems to be telling us to turn left. I don't know how, but it is."
"Left?" Terrence repeated. "But that would lead us right into the forest."
"I know," Edgar said. "But I have to go that way. If you want, I could go in myself…Marcus can't be too far away by now…"
"Absolutely not," Katherine said. "We're going to make sure you find your brother, aren't we, Terrence?"
Terrence nodded in agreement.
"It seems as if fate brought you to us, Edgar," he said solemnly. "It's the least we can do to help you."
The man, the woman and the raven left the dirt path and began making their way into the thick woods.
After stumbling through numerous patches of bushes and brambles, Ella was growing very cross indeed, and Marcus either ignored or completely failed to notice this. She was relieved to see a clearing several yards ahead of them, and fortunately, Marcus looked eager to see it as well.
"Straight ahead?" Ella asked, a little wearily.
"Yes, yes," Marcus said frantically. "This stupid ring is going to set my feathers on fire if we don't hurry!"
"What do you think is going to happen to that ring once we find your brother?" Ella asked.
Marcus fell silent for a moment.
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "We'll just have to see what happens."
"'We' again," Ella growled to herself as she trudged towards the clearing.
Terrence, Katherine and Edgar emerged into an area of the forest that was completely free of trees. All three looked around, blinking in the bright sunlight.
"Where should we go now?" Katherine asked Edgar.
"I'm not sure," Edgar replied. "The ring doesn't seem to be…Wait! Who is that?"
He was staring at a figure that stood on the opposite edge of the clearing…a figure wearing a knapsack that had a large, black bird perched on top of it.
"It's him!" Marcus exclaimed, looking at the couple that stood several hundred feet away from them and noticing the gold ring around the leg of the creature perched on the woman's shoulder. "It's Edgar! It has to be!"
He leapt into the air, wings flapping madly, and started flying towards the far side of the clearing. Edgar, noticing this, followed suit and began swiftly approaching Marcus. The two ravens met in the center of the clearing, but just as they were about to touch, a blinding flash appeared between them that knocked them both backwards, as if they had flown into an invisible wall.
However, as soon as the brothers had hit the ground, they were human once more, and the clothes they wore were not gray with feather-lined collars – in fact, the brothers faintly recognized the garments they now had on as the same ones they were wearing on the day they had been cursed. They shakily got to their feet, looked at each other, and began crying out with joy, embracing each other and laughing almost hysterically.
The three people that had been watching this slowly began to approach, the couple curious about who the golden-haired woman was, and vice versa. When Ella had gotten close enough to Katherine and Terrence to see the color of their eyes, she halted abruptly. Katherine, not comprehending why the blonde stranger had done this, continued approaching the center of the clearing with her husband, until she was standing directly behind Edgar. Edgar turned at the sound of her approach and smiled warmly at her.
"Marcus," Edgar said, "This is Terrence and Katherine. They took me in and sheltered me all this time while I was under that spell."
Marcus grinned and greeted the couple, then turned and indicated Ella (who was still standing some distance away) with a broad sweep of his arm.
"And this, Edgar, is Ella," he said proudly. "Ella, my brother Edgar."
Ella looked at Edgar and greeted him without much emotion, then looked at Terrence and Katherine with wide eyes – more specifically, at Katherine, who looked back with an equally frightened look. For a moment, Ella just stared at her, still as a statue. Then she rubbed the side of her face and muttered something that would have shocked the most foul-mouthed sailor in the world.
"What's going on?" Marcus asked.
Ella started to say something, but bit her lip and stopped herself. Katherine trembled for a moment or two, then slowly raised her right hand in Ella's direction and said a curious, multisyllablic word.
Instantly, Ella's fair hair turned black as night, and her pale skin darkened. She stared in horror at her hands and clutched madly at her hair. When her panic had died down, her eyes once again met Katherine's. The two women now looked almost completely identical. In fact, to Edgar, it seemed almost as if…
"We're sisters," Katherine said with a nervous quiver in her voice. "Our mother was skilled in magic, and Ella took after her, but I wanted nothing to do with it, though I couldn't get the memory of some of her spells out of my mind. When I was old enough, I left home, traveled around the country and soon found Terrence. I've tried everything I could to live a normal life…but it looks like this stupid magic just won't leave me in peace!"
She hung her head and started sobbing gently. Terrence gaped at her, too startled by this news to comfort her. Marcus turned to Ella.
"And you disguised your true appearance and went traipsing from town to town, living out the only life you feel a sorceress can live, is that your story?"
"More or less," Ella sighed, suddenly looking very weak. "I'd almost forgotten about Katherine…I never thought I'd see her again."
Marcus nodded and stared at Ella, not sure what else he could say. Edgar was even more confused by what had just happened, and he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he barely even noticed the ring on the third finger of his right hand starting to wriggle its way off of its own accord.
"Marcus!" he gasped. "Look!"
Marcus glanced at Edgar's ring, then looked at its own to discover that it was also working its way off his finger. The three others present didn't seem aware of this until the rings were finally free of the men's digits. They flew towards each other and met in midair with a sharp tink, then attached end to end, forming a squat gold tube. As Marcus and Edgar watched, something shimmered and appeared between the two rings: a rolled sheet of parchment. As soon as the document had materialized within the rings, it dropped to the ground. Edgar stooped and picked it up, slid the scroll out of the tube and unrolled it. His face paled slightly as he read the first two lines.
"Um…Katherine?" he asked nervously. "I think this letter is for you…you and your sister."
Katherine looked up at Edgar, her face stained with tears. She slowly approached him and took the paper from him with trembling fingers. Ella walked up to Katherine and softly asked if she could read over her shoulder. Katherine nodded mutely.
The three men stood silently as Ella and Katherine stared at the parchment. After several tense minutes, the sisters looked at each other with a mixture of grief, confusion and longing. Then Katherine handed the letter to Edgar.
"It concerns you, too," she said gently, her voice still strained with emotion.
Edgar held the letter out so that he, Marcus and Terrence could all see it, and together, they read it:
My dearest Sybella and Katherine,
If you are reading this letter, then my plan was successful. If the two boys whom you doubtlessly aided are with you at this moment, please inform them that I apologize for all that I made them endure.
Why did I do it, you might ask? It's quite simple, really: I've been keeping an eye on you two, and though you both have been living good lives, they were not complete. Each of you was lacking a crucial half of what you are, and as you drifted apart, the more pronounced this lack became in both of you. The only way to restore the so-called "missing half" to both your lives was to have you meet each other again.
However, I know better than to try to pull you together magically. You would recognize my magic and resist it at once – yes, even you, Katherine – so I had to lure you together indirectly. As different as the two of you are, I know one thing you both have in common: You can never turn away from a creature in dire need of help – hence my use of Marcus and Edgar.
Though I do regret cursing those boys, I gain solace in the fact that I might have, in fact, helped them just as I helped you. While separated from each other, they realized more than ever how much they rely upon each other, and how difficult survival by themselves is. In fact, you could say that I killed two birds with one stone!
In closing, tell Edgar and Marcus that they are free to return home, and remember who you are, my daughters. Katherine, do not forget that you are a witch; and Sybella, do not forget that you are a woman.
And do consider visiting me, should you have the time! I still live in that same old house in the woods.
After Marcus (who wasn't a fast reader) finally finished the letter, he looked up to see Edgar and Terrence staring at him in slack-jawed astonishment.
"So that witch was – " Marcus began.
"So your mother – " Terrence started to ask Katherine.
"All this time – " Edgar said.
All three had started speaking at the same time, and they stopped at roughly the same time as well. When nobody dared to talk for nearly half a minute, Edgar nervously piped up:
"Katherine…Ella…you two are the daughters of the witch that cursed us??"
Katherine nodded, but Ella snorted angrily.
"Sybella," she growled. "I told her never to call me by that name again! And she's not a witch, she's a sorceress!"
"Odd," Edgar remarked, a smile creeping over his face. "Marcus called her a witch several times when we encountered her, and she never objected to that title."
"Maybe there really aren't any differences between a witch and a sorceress," Marcus added with a grin.
Ella groaned in aggravation and ran a hand through her now jet-black hair. Suddenly, Katherine laughed.
"I don't see why everyone should be so gloomy," she said. "Edgar and his brother are free of their curse, and I must confess that even though I feared you because you used magic…I still missed you, Ella."
Ella looked crossly at Katherine.
"The years haven't made you any less overly affectionate, Katy," she muttered.
"Is this true?" Terrence gasped. "Katherine…are you truly a witch's daughter?"
Katherine smiled as more tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I'm afraid that I am," she said. "You're not angry with me, are you, Terrence?"
Terrence looked heavenward, then sighed and shook his head as he looked into his wife's dark eyes once more.
"Why should I be?" he asked with a warm smile. "You're still the same woman I fell in love with, after all."
Katherine threw her arms around him and Terrence embraced her tightly. When he noticed Ella watching them uneasily, he stepped away from Katherine and spoke to Ella:
"So you're the sister my wife never told me about," he said, sounding slightly amused.
"Yes," Ella nodded. "But I want to say right here and now that witches do not always dabble in destructive magic. In fact, a good deal of them practice beneficial spells, but since people always tend to associate witches with evil, they are persecuted and ostracized just as much as the malevolent ones."
Terrence tried to hide a chuckle.
"Our recent experience with Edgar has revealed to us that creatures said to be malevolent can turn out to be just the opposite," he reflected. "So I'm inclined to believe you, Miss Ella."
"Just Ella," Ella said. "Well, Katy, it's been nice to see you again, and I'm glad that I could help you, Marcus. I'd better be going now."
"Wait! Don't go," Katherine begged. "There's so much that you and I have to talk about! Please come back to town with us and join us for supper at the very least."
"I really should be moving on," Ella protested.
"Listen, I want to spend some time with you even if you don't," Katherine said. "Besides, if we go our separate ways now, Mother might curse another couple of poor souls that we'll be forced to reunite."
Katherine suddenly smiled suggestively.
"There are also a lot of unmarried men in our village," she said. "If I weren't Terrence's wife, I would probably be losing my heart over one of them now…and Mother did say not to forget that you are a woman, and she always knows best…Sybella."
Ella scowled at the mention of her full name, then rolled her eyes and sighed.
"All right," she muttered, walking towards Katherine and her husband. "I'll stay with you. Just for tonight."
"Very well," said Terrence, turning around and heading back the way he and his wife had come, "But we have no objections if you want to stay longer."
"Do you still do that little trick where you make droplets of water float in the air?" Katherine asked. "I always thought that was fascinating."
"I think I still know how to do it," Ella said, whose voice was starting to soften as she walked alongside her sister.
The trio had covered several yards before Katherine suddenly remembered Marcus and Edgar. She turned and ran back to them.
"I'm sorry to leave you so suddenly," she said quickly. "Like the letter said, I'm sorry for what my mother put you two through and I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive her…and us, to some extent. You're free to return to your homes now, but of course, Edgar is always welcome at our house, you too, Marcus. I'm just glad that we could help you, Edgar, and I wish you the best of luck!"
Katherine embraced Edgar so suddenly and tightly that he was almost winded. She then shook Marcus's hand firmly and ran back to Terrence and Ella, who were now some distance away. Ella turned and waved to Marcus.
"You're welcome," she yelled with a hint of sarcasm. "And…thanks for the help with the magic tricks."
"Magic tricks?" Edgar whispered to Marcus.
"It's a long story," Marcus sighed.
The brothers watched in silence as the two dark-haired women and the single man walked out of the clearing and gradually became obscured by the dense foliage. Soon, even the faint sound of their conversation was gone.
"Well," Edgar mumbled, "I guess we'd better start trying to find our town again. I suppose going our separate ways really wasn't such a good idea, eh?"
Marcus grunted in response without looking his way. In the long silence that followed, Edgar examined the letter and the fused rings he still held in his hands and shook his head in amazement.
"Hmm?" Marcus mumbled.
"What are you thinking?"
For a while, Marcus didn't reply. Then he sighed and placed a hand on his brother's shoulder.
"You know, Edgar," he mused, "Even if I live to be a hundred years old, I don't think I'll ever truly understand women."
Author's Notes: Edgar and Marcus are named after two real men that are associated with ravens to some extent. One wrote a famous poem about a raven, the other was named after a raven and won a difficult fight with the help of one (according to Livy). A group of ravens is called an "unkindness".
And though it's not mentioned in the story, the day the brothers were cursed was a Wednesday – a day named after Odin, whose two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, acted as his eyes and his ears.