„Is that all?“
Diaval fidgeted slightly under his mistress’ cold gaze. He has just finished reporting the precious little information he had gathered at King Stefan’s hamlet, and he wanted to check if everything was well with the little human fledgling he had grown so fond of. And with a little bit of coaxing, a little bit of cunning and a little bit of luck, he would be able to talk Maleficent into joining him.
Also, he wanted to change the subject. He didn’t want Maleficent to see how upset he truly was. There was no need for her to worry as well.
“It is all.”
“You have been away for quite some time for such a small tidbit of news.” Her voice was too even, too sweet. “You would not lie to me, Diaval, now would you?”
“I never lie”, he snapped, offended. She rose an eyebrow at his tone, but he continued “I gave you all relevant information. Certainly you don’t expect me to waste your time by telling you all the bird…stuff.”
He hoped he would be off the hook now, but she just stared at him blankly. It was worse than being stared upon by a cat. He at least knew what the cat’s intentions were.
“Tell me the bird…stuff.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. She had smelled the metaphorical blood. There would be no saving from this one.
With a deep sigh, he begun: “Fine. King Stefan had ordered all ravens in Perceforest to be killed at sight.”
Maleficent’s green eyes blazed even greener, with a hint of red at the edge of her irises. She gripped her staff so hard that the veins on the back of her hand bulged. “What?”
“Well, it was a matter of time. I was seen…at the christening. And then they started seeing me around the castle. Whenever Stefan plans the attack, you are always ready. Someone realized that the information was leaking frim the castle to you. And then someone connected all that. Not likely Stefan, though; he doesn’t have a perceptive bone in his body.” Diaval looked everywhere but at Maleficent, whose face, for some reason, turned to the color of sour milk. “I think it was lord Ortolan”, he finished lamely.
“Explain”, Maleficent hissed dangerously, “how exactly does this information not qualify as relevant.”
“It does not affect you”, he shrugged. “It affects my kind. But I took care of it. I spent most of the day warning the unkindnesses and the nesting couples not to go close to any human habitat in near future. I can only hope they will listen to me.” He glanced at her shocked, furious face. “I told them to flock at the thorn wall, to stick as close to the Moors as possible. They are the least likely to be attacked by farmers and poachers there.”
“That is all very nice and lovely”, Maleficent didn’t seem one bit relieved. “But did it cross that feathered brain of yours that you would not be able to go spying for me any more in your raven form?”
“Why not?” he put on the bravest face he could muster. In truth, he was more than a little terrified, but he didn’t want to look incompetent or weak in front of her. This was his fault, anyway. He should have been more careful, more discreet. This was his own mess. “I came back alive today, didn’t I? I know how to be invisible when need be”, he plastered a smile he didn’t feel.
“That is not nearly good enough”, she snarled. “Until this situation is cleared, you are to go there in this form.”
She waved her hand, and Diaval felt his world lurching inwards. Suddenly, everything became bigger, and somehow scarier. Yet, the body felt vaguely familiar.
He chirruped when Maleficent leaned down to scoop him up in her palms. Her hands appeared huge.
“What a lovely little sparrow you make”, she grinned.
He inspected his tiny, black wings in mortification.
“Ah, never mind that, little birdie. Size isn’t everything”, she flashed her white, sharp teeth, and he wasn’t certain she wasn’t about to swallow him whole. “Let’s go to the cottage and see if the little beast thinks you are her ‘pwetty buwd’ in this form, too.”
Robin hadn’t spoken to Maleficent ever since the curse, and he was keeping a good distance away from her.
While she was telling herself she was perfectly fine with that, that she was a different person now, not longer the fairy he’d helped raise, that he had every right to protect himself from her toxic influence…she was still overcame with a wave of happy excitement when she heard him calling her name.
It was cut short when she realized she wasn’t merely calling for her.
He was screaming from the top of his little lungs.
“Maleficent!!!” Robin almost collided with her face when he dived for her from the air, while she jumped up from where she was sitting.
“At the wall! At the wall! Where is – where is Diaval? Find him, you have to find him now!”
Her insides felt as if filled with ice.
Not losing a moment, she started sprinting after Robin, cursing for the hundredth time the lack of her wings, while the old fairy babbled and wailed interchangeably. There were tears on his little face.
Abandoning every modicum of pride, she summoned Balthasar to pick her up on his massive shoulder and to follow Robin with speed she didn’t have.
She had never, ever before allowed herself to be carried to compensate for her disability, not even right after her wings were cut off and the pain was unimaginable, but it didn’t matter now.
They charged through the Moors.
The sky was heavy with dark clouds that promised a hailstorm. Thunder would rumble every now and then, as if announcing something ominous.
Monsters, Maleficent thought while she tried to gather composure, stumbling through the innumerable corpses of dead or dying birds, just at the outer side of the wall. Monsters.
The ground was black from their bodies.
There was at least a hundred of them, probably more, blood coming out if their beaks, eyes and rear ends. Some were still twitching.
“At least it is not the hatching season”, she heard Robin sob at her right.
Balthasar had refused to stay at the Moor side of the wall and he was gently carrying all the bodies in one horrible pile. Flies had already started gathering. He inspected every bird with gentleness one would never expect from such a huge, fearsome creature, and each one that was not a small black sparrow, he would lay down on the pile which was growing in an alarming rate.
“How?” Robin cried, as he pushed his way through the dead birds. The great majority of them were ravens, but there were crows, magpies, an occasional kestrel; there were weasels, rats, and even a stray dog whose legs were still twitching. Maleficent guessed they would find more corpses if they ventured a bit further in Perceforest. And in that horror, they were looking for one specific black sparrow, dead or dying. “Maleficent, how?”
She used a leaf to carefully pick up a piece of a raw meat from the ground. There were more of them. Quite a few, actually. They were scattered at the length of the thorn wall.
“Poison”, she choked the word out. “Unknown to me.”
Diaval had thought that the humans would merely bludgeon the ravens with stones and shovels, shoot them with arrows, catch them with nests. Neither Diaval nor Maleficent thought that Stefan would be cunning enough to organize a mass extermination of such proportions. And poor Diaval, in an attempt to protect his kind by sequestrating them by the wall actually made Stefan’s job ridiculously easy.
If he is still alive, he will not survive this.
No. No. He was alive, she knew. She could feel him, his lifeline strong and vivid along the core of her magic. If she was not imagining it. Where was he? Why was he not back from the castle? Was he caught and kept imprisoned?
‘A patrol of soldiers went alongside the wall just before the sunrise”, Balthasar spoke mournfully. ‘But they were not causing any disturbance, so the sentry guard thought nothing if it. They must have scattered the baits then.’
Sunrise. Just when Diaval had headed for the castle. He must have just missed them.
Stefan had planned the timing well. He took into consideration that birds would be hungry at sunrise, and they would still all be here, together, and not off foraging somewhere else. A perfect opportunity.
“He isn’t here”, Robin said with a shaky voice. “We have been looking for hours. Humans would know we would come looking. We have to go, Maleficent!”
“You go”, she answered with a raspy voice. “I told you to stay on the other side. I am waiting for him here.”
“You don’t know he would come here, lass.” Robin said, his breathing ragged.
“The humans might come, too. Someone who planned this would guess we would come looking for him.”
“I am waiting for them, too”, she growled back. “And when they come, I will kill each one of them, slowly. They will suffer. And I will pile them up at Stefan’s door just like we are piling up Diaval’s kin now.”
Robin was quiet.
And then Maleficent heard him.
She would know his voice in every form he would take, no matter how different the voice might sound to anybody else. He was chirruping as he flew as fast as his little wings could carry him, and in his chirruping, she recognized horror.
She didn’t think her heart could sink any lower, but it did. She was shaking while she was trying to make out his tiny form in the distance. And when he did come in her field of vision, she was overcome with the feeling that he wouldn’t want to be a sparrow when he faces this tragedy; that he would want to be in his natural form, the form of his dead and dying kin.
So she sent her magic to him, and in mid-air, in a wisp of black smoke, not losing any of his breakneck speed, sparrow’s small wings became raven’s much larger ones, and frantic chirrups turned to agonized shrieks. The horrible sound resonated throughout the valley; there would be no living creature who would not have heard it.
Now that was one voice she had never heard from him. Goosebumps broke all over her skin; she tasted blood in her throat. At her side, Robin’s breath hitched.
Suddenly, Maleficent was hit by terrible fear that a soldier with an arrow and bow might be crouching somewhere in the tall grass. An image of Diaval being taken from the sky, his pierced body falling down, flashed in her mind, and she raised her hand to turn him back into a sparrow, so he would at least make a smaller target, but stopped because as a raven he was faster. Uncertain, she agonized for a moment, and then he was already close, and she knew, just knew that he would not want to be anything other than a raven at the moment.
And yet, her fear got the better of her. She could imagine hidden archers everywhere, behind every bush, every rock, every tree. So when he dove for the ground, she ran to where she saw he would land, and just before he did, his raven shrieks turned to unintelligible human screams. He landed on all fours, hair falling over his face, eyes unseeing.
Maleficent didn’t think. Her mind was empty, her heart felt as if her wings were torn away from her again, but this time slowly and while she was fully conscious, and her arms grabbed Diaval as she fell down at the ground at his side and pulled him close, firmly. He continued screaming in her shoulder, writhing; his screams almost deafened her. She was silent; she neither had the words to say, and even if she did, he would not be able to hear or comprehend them.
“Put him to sleep!” Robin yelled, trying to outshout Diaval. He was weeping again, and his both hands were over his ears. “By the love of anything you care for, Maleficent, put him to sleep!”
Instead, she tried to get at least a fraction of Diaval’s attention by trying to turn his face to hers. “Diaval, did you eat any of the baits? The meat, did you pick up any meat that humans left today? Diaval, did you?”
But he wouldn’t look at her and wouldn’t answer. He buried his face in his hands, and she tried to pry them away. “Did you eat anything that you found outside of the Moors? Anything? Answer me, Diaval, now!”
“He won’t answer you, lass, and we need to get him away from here!” Robin yelled. “Put him to sleep, take him home, he needs to get away from here! I beg of you, Maleficent, look at him – his heart is going to give out!”
But she couldn’t. She found herself frozen, holding her raven in a grip of steel. Diaval’s ear- splitting screams were turning into heart- wrenching moans. With shaking hands, Maleficent pressed his head to rest on her chest, and, in an universal gesture of comfort, begun to rock him. His wailing mixed with the high- pitched squeaks of those birds who were still writhing in agony.
“I am here”, she whispered in his ear when she finally found her voice. “I am here. I am here. I am here.”
“Maleficent!” Robin pleaded again, wringing his hands and fluttering desperately.
“My queen, we need to leave”, Balthasar spoke as quietly as he could, not to upset Diaval further. “If the humans attack us now, we will be vulnerable with him. HE will be vulnerable. They are looking for him. Look what they did just to get to him. We need to bring him to safety.”
Maleficent always thought that Diaval couldn’t understand a single sound of the sentinel’s language. But now his moaning turned to angry shouting: “I am not going anywhere! Anywhere!”
“We will come back”, Maleficent tried. “We will come back for them all, but you have to go home now, my bird. You have to be safe.”
“No, I don’t!” he screamed again, and Robin covered his ears once more. “No I don’t!” and he tried to jump to his feet, but Maleficent held him in her arms tighter and wouldn’t let go. He kicked his legs and tried to get away, at which point Balthasar loomed over and held his arms and legs in a grip of branches that might as well be made of stone shackles.
The only surviving raven of the territory slowly leaned against his mistress again. He was breathing hard; Maleficent could feel that every muscle in his arms and back was coiled. When he finally met her eyes, she saw that his own were large and red, glistening and haunted, and she knew that Robin was right. She will have to put him to sleep, or he would do something very stupid and get himself killed.
“It is not your fault”, she said, staring unflinching into those eyes and the raw pain in them. “It is not your fault, my bird.”
He took one glance at the birds that were still twitching and bleeding.
“Don’t look”, Maleficent quickly blocked his line of sight. “Diaval, don’t look.”
“But it is, mistress…it is, it is…my fault, mine…”
He doubled over in her arms and she had him bury his face in her robes so he could weep there. She covered him with her long cloak as she would with her wings, if she still had them.
“It is not, dear bird” she rocked him, “it is his fault. Only his.”
“I gathered them here”, he growled through gritted teeth. “Brought them here. All together. Stupid. So stupid…”
“And it didn’t cross my mind either that something like this would happen. Who would think of that?”
“I should have…oh my goodness, I should have…”
“They will be remembered”, she ran her hand down his hair and back. “I swear. They will be remembered for as long as I am alive.”
With heavy heart, she produced a golden flower from her robes, and gently blew the pollen on Diaval’s face.
Instantly, he went completely slack, and she felt his weight against her.
“Oh, thank goodness”, Robin shuddered.
“Let’s get out of here, Maleficent, quickly.”
She waved a hand, and a sleeping man in her arms became a sleeping raven.
“I am sorry, my bird”, she stroked his black feathers. “But what I am about to do here, you do not need to witness.”
She handed Diaval over to Balthasar, who cradled him in his leafy embrace, instantly growing some of his branches in a nest- like shape.
“Take him home. He will be asleep for a good while. I will be shortly.”
“What are you planning to do, lass? Not something really, really stupid, I hope?” Robin frowned.
“Some are still suffering”, she indicated at the unfortunate birds.
Robin swallowed hard.
Maleficent picked up one dying raven. It was a very lovely, young female. Blood dripped from her beak, and her wingtips shuddered.
“Forgive me”, Maleficent whispered and touched the bird with the head of her staff. The jewel shone bright green, and so did Maleficent’s eyes.
There was a spark of green, and the raven’s convulsed only once, as if hit by a lightning. Simultaneously, so did all of the other dying creatures. After that, they all went still.
Green magic seeped out of Maleficent’s hands. It creeped over the poisoned animals slowly, engulfed all of the bodies like fog. It stretched along the thorn wall like a disease.
Then it went aflame. Green fire erupted in a long, wide line, and Maleficent heard Robin give out a yelp from among the thorns. The air became filled with the smell of burning feathers and flesh. The smoke rose high. And among the flames, Maleficent stood. She felt her eyes sting and water.
“Maleficent!” Robin called out.
She slowly turned her head towards him. Her eyes shone so bright that they were clearly visible through the smoke. Her silhouette stood straight like a statue in the fire, among the green flames that licked higher and higher.
“Humans will come”, she drawled out as if she was terribly bored. “And I will be waiting. I must take the target off Diaval’s back, and there is only one way.”
“Go home. Look after him. I will be back.”
The smoke engulfed her, and Robin could only yell out in horror.
Four soldiers on horsed indeed were sent to investigate the source of the ominously colored wildfire at the border.
What the horses dragged back to King Stefan were two carbonized corpses, one man who was bleeding out of his nose, bladder and gums, and one seemingly unharmed man who only repeated one sentence, over and over.
“You killed her servant, so she killed yours. You killed her servant, so she killed yours. You killed her servant…”
“You think that will fool him?” Robin asked.
“I certainly hope so”, Maleficent said. Or I have made another irreparable scar on my soul in vain.
Robin looked mournfully from her gaunt face, to the sleeping raven in her embrace. One wing was tucked under him, the other one unfurled, leaning over Maleficent’s chest and shoulder.
“What will he be like when he wakes up?” Robin shook his head sadly. “What a shame. He did not deserve this. And neither did those other poor birds.”
Maleficent did not need to be reminded how many innocents were caught up in her web of revenge and hate. She was feeling it very acutely, even if she would rather have her fingernails all pulled out than admit it.
Aurora. Queen Leila. Soldiers who had no choice but follow orders. The Moorfolk and the people of Perceforest, who all suffered for their leaders’ declining mental health. Those birds. And Diaval…
“That will be all, Robin”, she said curtly. “Thank you for your assistance. I will let you know of Diaval’s condition.”
“Yes, you do that.” He sniffed. “I like that fellow, you know. You were lucky to meet him.”
Maleficent wanted to snarl at him that she didn’t consider anything connected to her loss of wings lucky. But she didn’t; for some reason, the words would not leave her mouth. And besides, Robin had already disappeared. She was alone with a sedated raven in her lap.
Robin, however, had hovered between the thickly grown branches that made the walls of Maleficent’s abode, and through a small opening, he took one last peek inside before he would leave her again.
His eyes watered when he saw her crumple in herself the moment she thought that he no longer could see her. It was unimaginable that this broken young woman was the same godlike figure he had seen standing in the flames a few hours ago. She leaned over Diaval, and more than ever before, the ridges of her wing stumps were protruding under her robes on her back. She pulled the raven closer to her face and rocked him, caressed him, scratched his head, and finally, landed a small kiss at the top of his beak.
“If you remember this”, she whispered shakily, “I am going to deny this to my death day, you know. You silly bird. You good soul. You strong soul. I should have never dragged you down with me.”
Robin fluttered away. He couldn’t take it. And he shouldn’t have spied on them anyway.
There is still some of my old Maleficent in there. And you are a much better person than me for not giving up on her, Robin the Second, he thought sadly of the nickname the pixies gave Diaval. I just don’t have the guts for it. If I want to stay sane, I must stay away from her. I am sorry.
“The dress is…beautiful”, Aurora said. “Though a little intimidating”, she smiled nervously.
“That is rather the point”, Maleficent answered.
“But I wonder”, the girl continued, “are those…raven skulls?”
“And Diaval is…not bothered by that?”
Maleficent took a moment to answer: “No. It was his wish.”
“Oh.” Aurora blinked. “Do they have…a special meaning, then?”
Again, Maleficent seemed reluctant to answer. “Yes.”
When Aurora continued to look at her expectantly, the fairy added: “They are a remembrance. A fulfillment of a promise, given many years ago.”
“Oh, of what?”
This time, Maleficent was silent for so long that Aurora thought that she would not answer at all. But finally, she did.
“It’s not a pretty story.” Another pause. “And I might tell it to you one day. But not today.”
Aurora nodded. She had an uneasy feeling about it, and regretted asking at all.
“Do not inquire Diaval about this.” The fairy pierced Aurora with a determined look, and the feeling of unease deepened. “It is not a story he wishes to tell.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Good.” Maleficent turned away, and Aurora walked after her, suddenly with a heavy heart. After a long silence, Maleficent absently touched one of the skulls at her collarbone, and whispered barely audible, as if to herself:
“They could not be saved. But they will be remembered.”