approx 2300 words, ~15 min read time
High in the trees, watching over your tiny hunting village, the loud cries of the ravens drown out all other noises. The ravens are far from the most threatening thing you protect your village from, but they still make you falter. They scream most mornings, hidden deep in the forest, but only come out to taunt you on the good, sunny days when you are convinced that nothing is wrong.
The birds couldn’t have been there for more than a few minutes, but to you it feels like hours, dread making every second move like sap. Time always slows when the ravens arrive, blocking you from venturing further into the forest, daring you to do something.
You turn away from the birds as if that would change what they mean. Their deep croaks follow you as you head back to your home, echoing in your ears and filling your mind with inky feathers. You pull your unused bow over your shoulder and tuck your game bag away.
The rest of the village is oblivious to the awful things happening around it. The ravens in the trees, the deer slaughtered before you could hunt them, the rotted wood, all go ignored. Once, you’d tried to tell them what you were seeing, but most brushed you off. They told you it was mere coincidence, that you had to deal with it because it was your job. Some said it was a message from the Gods. All could be the truth; figuring out which feels impossible.
Hands wave, lips smile, but the kind faces of the villagers blur into each other as you pass them. They should be familiar, you know they are, but your mind swims with the pale colours of their tunics. It always happens, with every omen, every raven and black butterfly and white horse in the night. How do you handle such things, knowing exactly what you are seeing and knowing that someone you know will soon die?
Your partner stands near your rickety home, a basket of fruits in their hands, long hair tangling in the wind. They don’t see you for a moment, passing their basket to another villager with a sweet smile on their face. When you touch their wrist, their eyes widen with concern.
“Back already?” they ask. The orchard spreads out behind them, framing them with thick green leaves and bright fruit. At least the village would gain some food from the trees, because they wouldn’t get anything from you.
“Never started,” you say with a shake of your head. “Are you done?”
“For now,” they say. There is a frown on their face, one of concern, but not disappointment. Never disappointment. You share a knowing look, sad and exhausted, before they nod towards your home. “Walk back with me, my love.”
A cough follows and you flinch.
The weather is growing colder, a cough is common, but the ravens are still cawing in the distance.
You’ve had too many dreams of them dying, of everyone dying, to pass it off as just a cough.
“Did something happen?” your partner asks, worry lacing every word.
“Ravens,” you say and lean heavily against the creaky wooden walls. Frowning, they nod and run a hand down your arm. You’ve told them before what you’ve been seeing, but it is impossible to tell what they really think about it.
Another cough, one that fills your veins with dread, and your partner gives you a watery smile. “Rest,” they say and guide you towards the too-small bedroom and the lone piece of furniture within. “The others can hunt today. It doesn’t always need to be you.”
It does though, it always needs to be you.
You sleep as best you can, your dreams filled with caws and feathers. For so long you have protected your village. From the moment you could hold a spear your father had forced you out there. Everyone in the village sees you like that, their protector, their hunter. Everyone except your partner, who touches you with soft hands and helps you forget your responsibilities.
But not even they can help you forget what is going on. Someone is going to die, the Gods are showing you as much.
Why the Gods have chosen you is unknown. It is torture, knowing someone is going to pass but not who or when. You could stop it if you knew, but none of the omens give you any specific details. The ravens told you that someone would die, but never said who, never said when.
Three knocks on someone’s door would tell you who was going to die that night, but you’ve never heard them. The Gods have sent good and bad omens to the village all your life, but they are always vague, nothing more than hints at what will happen.
Your partner sneaks into bed when the sky grows dark. They mutter something about keeping people away, but you don’t hear enough to bother with a response. Coughing, they crowd in close and shiver against you. You should ask if they are alright, but their arms are so warm, so comforting, that you forget.
They are worse in the morning, spluttering all over your pillows. For the first few minutes after you wake, all you can do is stare. Then you move, legs tangled in the fur blankets, and tremble at the side of the bed. They are pale and shaking almost as much as you, every breath coming out like a wheeze.
Mind racing, you do the only thing that you can make sense of. You run for help.
When you are finally able to focus again, you stand in the bedroom doorway, watching the village doctor talk to your partner. He asks them questions they can barely answer through the haze of their sickness, their voice thick and tired. The doctor keeps his back to you, but the set of his shoulders tells you enough.
Your words are trapped in your throat when the doctor turns around. “I’ve given them some medicine,” he says and pats your partner’s shaking hand. “It’ll help. I’ll check in every day to make sure.”
You show him to the door in silence, nodding along with his instructions. When he passes under the doorway, a beautiful black butterfly flutters behind him and you almost slam the door in your panic. The coughing echoes towards you, hanging in the air like an axe about to fall.
Any attempt at hunting or looking after the rest of the village is forgotten for the sake of your partner. They choke and splutter and shake weakly on the bed. You are healthy. You are completely fine, aside from the panic that controls every movement.
“My love,” they’d say whenever times were tough. The end of the sentence would always change; sit with me, dance with me, stay with me. They always knew what you needed.
“My love…” they say from the bed, but not another word comes out. They are too weak to do anything but lie there.
It can’t be them. It shouldn’t be them. They’ve been with you for as long as you can remember, treating you like a person instead of the nameless protector of the village. Losing them… You didn’t know what would happen.
You stay with them through the coming days. Not going outside for almost a week means that you barely see the omens, but the ravens still croak and visit you in your dreams. Other villagers stop by to bring well wishes. They smile like they usually do, but with awful sadness in their eyes. You send them back to their warm and comforting homes with a grunt.
Your partner grows worse until they become one with the bed, trembling under the blankets you keep piled on them. The ravens yell almost constantly, as if they are counting down the days until they can carry your partner away.
You could fight them off. But animals in the woods are one thing, the Gods are another. They want a death and will not stop until they get one. They’ve shown you for weeks, prepared you for it. Why would the Gods give you such a warning if they weren’t going to let you fight back? There is still time. You and the doctor could still find some medicine to save your lover. Anything is possible.
It has to be someone else, anyone else.
On the eighth night since your partner fell ill, the doctor shakes his head and turns away from their thin, unconscious frame. They are too pale, a sheen of sweat on their forehead and their lips parted to take ragged breaths.
The doctor sighs. “I’m sorry, but-”
“Don’t,” you growl.
“The medicine isn’t working. It hasn’t worked from the start,” he says and places a hand close to your shoulder. You could tear that hand apart. “I doubt they’re going to last much longer. I’m sorry.”
You choke and gasp, your heart clawing its way up your throat. There are many things you could do in this moment: scream, throw something, demand an alternative. You do none of those things. Instead, you sit at the edge of the bed and grab your partner’s clammy hand. You whisper to them, beg them to wake up, and ignore the prick of tears in your eyes.
The doctor, the coward, waits in the doorway during your breakdown. He turns away, heading for the door. But he has no right to leave. If he isn’t going to save his patient, he should be here as they pass.
Why does it have to be them? The Gods had already taken your father some years back and forced you to take up the mantle of protector in his place. You have done so much, saved so many people, fed the children and helped their mothers, and still the Gods want to take more from you.
You won’t let them.
“It’ll be alright,” your partner whispers thickly, still sleeping, still smiling. You run a shaking hand through their hair.
Just one death.
There is something you could do. The Gods want a death, a single death, and you could give it to them. How easy that would be. The doctor could still prove useful. If the Gods want a soul so badly, you will give them one.
The doctor stands by the front door, but won’t meet your tear-filled gaze. At his feet is your woodcutting axe, shining in the dim light of the nearby candles. You reach past him and instead of pulling open the door, your hand clenches around the handle of the axe.
You turn, you face the man you are about to sacrifice to the Gods, and feel no remorse. Perhaps you should. Perhaps that would be better. But your mind is still when you swing the axe, the calmest you have been since the omens first appeared.
It is what needs to be done.
The doctor doesn’t make a sound as he dies, eyes wide with shock. No, the loudest part is the sound of the axe sinking into flesh and bone and organ. It echoes in your mind, the awful thud of the blade. You swing again and again and again, until there is nothing left except dark blood and the sound of your laboured panting.
Your Gods stare at you through the misshapen eyes in the grain of the wooden walls. The axe clatters against the wet floor and lands among the pieces of a man who has been nothing but kind to you. Kind, but not a good doctor if he couldn’t even save someone from a simple illness. It had been so fast, faster than you’d expected it to be. You step back, your hunting clothes stained with blood, and let out a long sigh of relief.
A soul for the Gods, your partner saved. It’s as simple as that.
Cleaning up is easier than you thought it would be. You scrub the floors, hide the remains in the garden behind the house with your soiled clothes, and change into new, clean clothes without once dwelling on what you have done. The house is quieter and cleaner than it has been in weeks, and the ravens don’t dare cry from the bordering forest.
Later, something will need to be said about the doctor’s disappearance. But for the moment, your partner needs you.
They still lie in their mound of blankets, sweat still plastering their soft hair to their face, but there is something off. The room is too quiet, a frozen pocket of space amid a bustling village. The breeze doesn’t dare push at the curtains or your partner’s long hair.
Muffled footsteps echo through the room and it takes you longer than it should to realise that you have moved. You stand by the bedside, your partner’s pale face the only thing you can see. Their lips part as if they are about to whisper again, but no sound comes out.
With shaking hands, you break the stillness, and push the blankets aside to press two fingers against their neck. A pulse, a weak flutter against your fingertips. The noise you make is almost inhuman. You collapse next to them on the bed, body trembling, and let the tears stream down your face.
In the distance, hidden in the trees, the ravens caw.
Matt Richardson (he/they) is an Australian queer author who writes primarily queer fantasy and speculative works. Usually found at his desk with his four cats, he is always experimenting with style and perspectives in his work. Their other works can be found in TL;DR Press anthologies and in Swine Magazine.
Photo by Andra C Taylor Jr on Unsplash