“Mine?” Ella asked. “How can they say it’s my fault? Today’s my first day and I haven’t even started yet.”
“They’re saying the ravens have rejected you. That they’ve left the Tower because they won’t allow you to feed them. Ella, you’d better get here fast. The Warders are saying that the king and Parliament will have to be informed. What are you going to do?” Bran asked.
“I’m going to start as I mean to go on,” Ella responded. “Buy me some time; I’ll be there as soon as I can, but I can’t skip the magic and I have to go buy their meat.” She turned off her cell and unplugged the computer.
Ella sat down. Every fiber of her being wanted to run madly to the Tower, begin to look for the birds, show that she was on top of things. But she’d been training for this job all her life and she knew that skipping the magic would only cause more trouble. And there was no way she’d be able to do her work at the Tower, where everyone would be running about in confusion, trying to find the birds, put off the tourists’ questions, angling for position. She began the breathing exercises she’d learned as a child: slow, steady breaths, each group of five slower than the group before. Gradually, although it took longer than it normally did, her heartbeat slowed, her muscles relaxed, her concentration grew. She recited the chant for a Dark Moon May 1st, which her father had hummed to her in her cradle, and sung to her every time since then. “Remember, Ella,” he’d say. “You must remember.”
“I am Ella and I fly with the blackest bird. The blackest bird flying under the Darkest Moon this Beltane Day, as my family has done, down all the dark years before me. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as the soil that grows the grain. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as the deep sea that brings forth the fish. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as the bedchamber that brings forth the child. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as the thunderclouds that bring forth the rain. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as the magic of England’s Witches. I fly with the ravens, the dark birds, dark as England’s fate if the the birds ever leave. I am Ella and I fly with the blackest bird so that the ravens will never leave and The Land will stay. My wings will not falter.”
Ella felt her own body grow lighter and lighter and, in her mind’s eye, she saw herself sitting inside the hidden room at the Tower, relaxed, wrapped in a giant cloak of black feathers — one from every raven who’d ever lived at the Tower. Her feet grew into claws and dug tightly into the ancient alder branch hung from the ceiling. And suddenly, she was in flight, slipping through the bars of the tiny window, soaring up into the wind.
“I need to find a raven,” Ella thought. “A raven who has a reason to talk.” Ella soared over bridges, looking at their undergirding for nests. She flew over cliffs, peering into outcroppings for old birds sunning themselves and preening in the Beltane sun. She scanned telephone poles and microwave towers and then, just like that, she saw him. He was huge, a strong, young male with glossy blue-black feathers. Not quite an adult, no longer a juvenile. He was playing an ancient crow game, taking off from the branches of a giant willow on the bank of the Thames, dropping a stick, and catching it mid-flight. Each time, he cawed with delight and flew back to the top of the tree.
Ella dove, grabbed the stick, and flew to a willow branch so low that it dipped into the Thames. “I have your stick and I have your name,” she told the bird, remembering the story of Bran the Blessed. “You’re Gwern and you’re going to tell me where the Tower Ravens have gone.”
“Thief!” the bird yelled, landing a branch above. “Thief and thief again! You’ve stolen my stick and stolen my name. Why should I tell you anything, you human who is not a bird and you bird who is not a human? Halfthing of the dark, I wouldn’t tell you that water is wet or that the air is full of currents.”
“No?” Ella asked. “OK. Fair enough. I think you don’t know. But I’ll find somebird that does. And a bird smart enough to know where the Tower Ravens are would probably like a bonny stick, good size, easy to toss and easy to catch.” She spread her wings as if to take off from the branch.
“Wait!” the young bird yelled. “Wait! Don’t give away my stick. I found it; it’s mine. I’ll tell you this: You’ll find the Tower Ravens when you find a fire that does not burn. Now give me back my stick!”
Ella flapped to the highest branch, dropped the stick, flew towards Earth, and caught it. Lightly, she threw it to the young male. “May your nest be full of chicks,” she laughed. “Thank you Gwern. Stay away from your uncles.”
“Bah,” the glossy bird said. “What would you know when you don’t even know where your own ravens have gone? My uncles love me.”
Ella soared again. “A fire that does not burn,” she mused. And, then, she saw the helicopters hovering over the Tower.