Rosinda trudged home with her head down, her backpack weighted with the homework Mr. Andrews had assigned for the night. Skeletal leaves crunched under her feet along the side of the road.
A low croak made her look up, and she saw the crows. They stood scattered in a loose line in the grassy swath beside the road, their glossy black feathers reflecting the late-afternoon sun, each just a wingspan away from the next. Every one had its bright black eyes fixed on her. Rosinda stopped.
The words of Aunt Odder’s crow-counting rhyme popped into her head. This was one of the many things she had struggled to relearn over the past year. She counted the crows under her breath, chanting the rhyme.
“One crow, sorrow; two crows, joy; three crows, a letter; four crows, a boy,” Rosinda said, her eyes resting briefly on each crow as she counted down the line. “Five crows, silver; six crows, gold—” She trailed off, looking around for a seventh crow. The rhyme always seemed to run out after six. Maybe crows didn’t like big groups.
Just like me. She turned back to the road.
From a tree just ahead, a black shape dropped like a falling branch. A seventh crow. This one, bigger than the others, swooped on silent feathers to the ground just in front of Rosinda.
“Seven crows, a secret that has never been told,” it said in a gravelly voice.
Rosinda froze, the weight of her backpack forgotten. Had that just happened?
Someone’s playing a trick. It wouldn’t be the first time. She forced her eyes from the crow, looking to both sides and glancing over her shoulder. Someone could have followed her from school, one of the boys, with one of those gadgets you could talk into and play your voice back in all sorts of weird ways. They must have heard her saying the crow rhyme. A chance to tease her. Yes, they must be hiding in the long grass, or behind a tree—
“There’s no one else here, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said the crow, hopping closer. “Just you and me. And them,” it said, cocking its head toward the other six crows, “but they don’t really count, since they won’t be joining the conversation.” The crow made a sound almost like a chuckle.
Then it’s the accident. Rosinda’s throat tightened. The head injury had taken away practically all her memories except for the past year, and now she was losing her mind.
The crow seemed to read her expression. It shook its head, black feathers ruffling. “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is real, and it’s important.”
Rosinda swallowed. “What do you want?” she asked. Her voice was a raspy croak, almost like the crow’s. The world seemed very tiny, shrunk down to this autumn-splashed stretch of road, herself, and the seventh crow. She hoped she wouldn’t faint.
“I have some things to tell you, Rosinda,” the crow said.
Rosinda’s hands flew up to cover her mouth. The crow knew her name?
“Please try not to be alarmed,” the crow said kindly. It cocked its head to the side, studying her. “Do you want to keep walking or sit in the grass over there?”
Rosinda’s legs felt wobbly. “I’ll sit,” she whispered. Almost as if they knew what she’d said, the other six crows hopped off a little distance. Rosinda walked to a nearby tree, sliding her backpack off and hugging it to her chest. She sat on the carpet of multicolored leaves with her back against the rough bark. The crow followed and stood just beyond her feet, regarding her with bright eyes.
“I’m afraid this is not the best news,” the crow said. “Your Aunt Oddeline has been kidnapped.”
“What?” Rosinda’s heart thudded in her chest. Her Aunt Odder was the only family she had here, with her parents in a hospital in Switzerland for the past year. The year since the accident. “How do you know this?”
“I know because of who I am and where I come from,” the crow said. “I think she’s safe for now, but you’re going to have to trust me. My name is Traveller.”
“Who would kidnap Aunt Odder?” Rosinda asked, jumping to her feet. The backpack rolled unheeded in the leaves. “I have to call the police!”
The crow lifted a wing. “That won’t do any good. The guards of this land—your police—will have no way to find her.”
Rosinda’s breath caught in her throat as if she’d been running. “Who kidnapped her?”
The crow shook its head again. “I don’t know. I have suspicions, but—no.”
“Can you help me find her? There must be something I can do!”
“I don’t suppose you know where Prince Sovann is?”
Rosinda shook her head impatiently. “I don’t even know who that is.”
The crow made a sound like a sigh. “Then you’ll have to come with me, Rosinda. You’ll have to come home to Ysterad.”
For a brief moment something shimmered at the back of Rosinda’s brain, the stir of a thought, or a memory, triggered by the name. She struggled to catch it, bring it to the front of her mind, but it was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving her feeling tired and slightly sick. The autumn air pricked her skin, suddenly cold. The hard, hot feeling in her stomach was anger.
“I have to go home,” she said.
“Yes,” the crow agreed, “we’ll need to gather some things.”
“No, I mean I’m going home. Alone. Home to my house. Mine and Aunt Odder’s. I don’t believe any of this. I’m dreaming, or hallucinating, or maybe I have a brain tumor. Maybe this is something else left over from the accident. I don’t know and I don’t care.” Rosinda’s breath came hard and fast. She grabbed her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Don’t follow me,” she said, and hurried back to the road. Rosinda felt the crow’s gaze on her back but she wouldn’t look at him.
She strode along the graveled shoulder, her thoughts in a jumble. There was no sound behind her, no soft flapping of wings overhead. Maybe the crow had taken her seriously and stayed behind. Rosinda had a flash of misgiving. What if she got home and Aunt Odder wasn’t there?
She pushed the thought aside and kept walking, the riot of red, gold, and orange leaves now garish and too bright. No cars passed. She and Aunt Odder lived in a small house on an out-of-the-way road, and it took her half an hour to walk home from school. Rosinda didn’t mind. She was a loner by nature. She hadn’t made many friends in the year since she and Aunt Odder had come to Cape Breton. Maybe other kids were wary around her because of her memory loss, the way sometimes she couldn’t think of the right word for something, but she didn’t think that was all of it. She just didn’t fit in.
Rosinda rounded the last corner, and the house came into view, a narrow, two-story cottage at the top of a curving gravel driveway. It looked completely normal, and Rosinda let out a breath she’d barely realized she was holding. Everything must be fine. A wisp of grey smoke curled out of the chimney, Aunt Odder’s beat-up little hatchback sat in the driveway. The kitchen window framed the silhouette of Filara, Aunt Odder’s cat. Rosinda hurried up the driveway.
“Aunt Odder!” she called when she opened the kitchen door. The radio played softly on the counter. Filara jumped down from the windowsill and bounded across the kitchen floor to Rosinda on silent feet, curling around her legs. Rosinda reached down and stroked the animal’s silky head absently as she listened for Aunt Odder’s welcoming voice.
It didn’t come. The house was silent, as if it also held its breath.
Rosinda slung her backpack onto the kitchen table. “Aunt Odder! Where are you?” she called again. The kettle was still plugged in, the teapot standing beside it with the top open, waiting for hot water. She glanced inside. Two teabags lay on the bottom. Rosinda touched the side of the kettle and felt a bare hint of warmth. It must have boiled a while ago and then shut off.
It wasn’t like Aunt Odder to boil water and not make tea.
Rosinda went to the tiny sitting room, her throat and chest tight. The computer hummed quietly on the corner desk near the window. The television was off. Rosinda ran up the stairs two at a time. It took only a glance to see that the two bedrooms and the bathroom were empty.
The house was empty. Aunt Odder wasn’t here.
Hot tears blurred Rosinda’s vision, but she blinked them back. Before she could decide what to do next, a terrible racket erupted downstairs. Rosinda glanced around, grabbed a heavy, wooden-handled umbrella from beside Aunt Odder’s door, and raced back down the stairs. Could this day get any worse?
She plunged through the kitchen door and skidded to a stop. Filara stood in the middle of the table, her patchwork of calico fur standing straight out. She hissed and spat in obvious fury.
The crow perched on the corner of the counter near the radio, wings spread wide as it screeched at the cat.
Whether it was the sudden reappearance of the crow, or the noise of the creatures, or her growing concern for Aunt Odder, Rosinda felt her worry turn to anger.
“Stop it!” Rosinda shouted, striding into the kitchen. She banged the umbrella down on the table and scooped Filara up. The cat struggled for a moment, then went quiet in her arms.
The crow immediately folded its wings, ruffling its ebony feathers for a moment until they fell elegantly into place. It made a sound that reminded Rosinda of a man clearing his throat. “Ahem. I apologize, Rosinda,” it said in a quiet voice. “The cat startled me when—”
“When you broke into my house?” Rosinda snapped. She didn’t want to imagine how the crow had done that.
“Well, yes,” the crow admitted. “But you’ve seen by now I was correct. Your aunt is not here.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s been kidnapped,” Rosinda started, but her voice trailed away. What did it mean, after all? Aunt Odder was always here when Rosinda came home from school. If she’d been out in the garden, Rosinda would have seen her. And she hadn’t finished making her tea.
Rosinda had to accept that the talking crow was not a hallucination. She felt her anger and her energy drain away. Keeping the cat on her lap, she lowered herself into Aunt Odder’s creaky wooden rocker.
“What did you say your name was?” Rosinda asked quietly. Her hands trembled slightly as she stroked Filara’s fur for reassurance.
“Traveller,” the crow answered. “Do you think we can talk now?”
Rosinda nodded. “I think,” she said slowly, “you’d better tell me everything.”
Sherry D. Ramsey is a speculative fiction writer, editor, publisher, creativity addict and self-confessed internet geek. When she’s not writing, she makes jewelry, gardens, hones her creative procrastination skills on social media, and consumes far more coffee and chocolate than is likely good for her.
Her debut novel, One’s Aspect to the Sun, was published by Tyche Books in late 2013 and was awarded the Book Publishers of Alberta “Book of the Year” Award for Speculative Fiction. The sequel, Dark Beneath the Moon, is due out from Tyche in 2015. Her other books include To Unimagined Shores—Collected Stories, and an urban fantasy/mystery novel, The Murder Prophet. With her partners at Third Person Press she has co-edited five anthologies of regional short fiction to date. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies in North America and beyond. Every November she disappears into the strange realm of National Novel Writing Month and emerges gasping at the end, clutching something resembling a novel.
A member of the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia Writer’s Council, Sherry is also a past Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer of SF Canada, Canada’s national association for Speculative Fiction Professionals.
You can visit Sherry online at www.sherrydramsey.com, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @sdramsey.
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