Disclaimor: I do not own fairy-tales, or The SevenCrow Princes, but I do own these characters and most of the plot.
A/N When her brothers are magically transformed into ravens, Calumet undertakes a journey to save them.
Chapter 1: Treachery
"Milord Rin, your shipment has arrived from the north."
The servant bowed towards his master, a giant of a man in his early fifties, and Rin, the Duke of Koli, nodded imperiously toward him.
"Have the bird brought here straight away and send for my daughter and sons. They will be in the training-yard," he commanded.
"Yes, milord. Right away."
Almost immediately a foreign merchant entered his office with servant that carried a cage of gilded silver, and inside, perched a beautiful bird with glossy black feathers and jewel-bright eyes. Rin smiled with pleasure at the sight of the raven he that had ordered months ago. The bird had come just in time for his daughter's eleventh birthday, and she would be thrilled.
In other parts of the world, ravens were abundant and even considered pests, but in the Duke's country, the winged creatures were extremely rare, only to be obtained from the elusive faeries. For the same price he had paid for the bird, the Duke of Koli could have bought two thoroughbred stallions fit for a king, but his daughter's delight was well worth the price.
The little girl had wanted one ever since she had seen a lord's pet raven at a banquet her father had hosted that could even croak a few human words. Little Calumet, the youngest and only girl out of five children was her father's soft spot. She reminded him of her mother, who had died years ago in an epidemic, but he also took great pride in his four sons who were thirteen, fifteen, sixteen, and nineteen. The raven was a gift from all of them to Calumet for her birthday.
The Duke motioned the merchant and his servant forward, and he inspected the young bird. It cocked its head at him and peered curiously as if inspecting the Duke as well. Then, to his amusement, the raven croaked what sounded like aloof approval and began to preen his wing feathers. Rin chuckled and reached into his desk for the bag of gold and jewels he had stored there, and he laid the small treasure box and opened it for the merchant to see.
Accordingly, the man's hungry eyes lit up at the sight of the small fortune that was his, much more than he had paid the Fair Folk for the bird. The merchant ordered for the servant to set the silver cage on Rin's desk, and he snatched up the treasure box, officially sealing the exchange by shaking hands with the duke. Rin thought that the bird's price was rather exorbitant, but he was not one to argue. The merchant smiled, extremely pleased with his earnings and then leaned forward in a manner of confidentiality.
"Milord Rin, I have news of Worl that may be very… helpful to your cause," he said.
The Duke was immediately on his guard, but he was careful to hide his reaction from the merchant at the mention of his sworn enemy and hated rival. The fighting between the two territories, Koli and Worl, had been going on since his great-grandparents' day, and Rin had continued the legacy with a vengeance. Not only had he won most of the skirmishes on their border, but his clever sense of business had caused his Koli to thrive.
Rin assessed the merchant for a few silent moments before saying, "Well? What is this news?"
"The Duke of Worl plans to assassinate you. He has grown tired of Worl's slow economic decline while Koli prospers, and you are the cause of that wealth. I was recently in that territory when I heard of the plans, and naturally, I did not wish to loose my most valuable customer."
Rin digested the merchant's words coolly, not saying a word. The merchant grabbed a flask of wine from his servant and took a nervous gulp. The Duke of Koli had always unnerved him with his brooding silence, and he was a formidable opponent. As an afterthought, the merchant offered him the wineskin.
"Would you like a drink, milord?"
Rin accepted his offer, still lost in thought, mulling over the merchant's words, and the servant produced two goblets for his master. The Duke took his cup and saluted the merchant before draining it, and a skinny little girl with white-blonde hair still in braids burst suddenly into the office. At the sight of his precious daughter, Rin's entire demeanor changed and softened.
"Papa!" she cried happily and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek while chattering about the sword training.
Calumet's four brothers, Jonol, Dover, Larn, and Scourn entered just behind her, grinning at the scene before them. Abruptly, she stopped speaking and stared at the cage on her father's desk, unable to believe what her eyes saw there. The eleven-year-old glanced toward her father and brothers incredulously, and they all started to laugh at her shocked silence. Rin gently pushed Calumet toward the cage and the bird that perched inside.
"Calumet, dear heart, the bird is a gift for…f-fo…"
He gasped suddenly, and clutched at his throat, eyes widening to an incredible size. Calumet went to her father, concern showing in her blue-green eyes, and she put a gentle hand on his shoulder. The Duke looked to where the merchant stood smirking in the corner, and started to pale and tremble.
"Papa? Papa, what is wrong?" asked Calumet, quite alarmed.
"P-poison!" he wheezed.
Then, he slumped forward onto his desk, as a final shudder wracked his broad frame. While her brothers stood immobile, Calumet jerked his head up, crying, "Papa! Papa! Wake up!"
The merchant came forward.
"He is dead!"
Calumet's four brothers turned on him in rage, and their swords flashed out of their scabbards. But the merchant was undaunted. He drew a tiny leather bag out of his pocket, and before any of the brothers could move, the killer had squeezed a pinch of black dust from inside. The four boys charged, shouting with fury, their swords upraised for a killing stroke just as the merchant cast the black powder towards them.
In a flurry of black feathers and raucous cawing, the four boys became four ravens, and their swords clattered to the ground. Calumet stood trembling with terror at her dead father's side, and she was so terrified she could not even scream for help. The murderer tossed a net he had ready and waiting, and quickly caught the four birds, unused to their new wings.
Then, he turned and bowed mockingly toward the petrified child with a sneer of disdain.
"Because of the unfortunate demise of your father and brothers, it seems that you are the new Lady of Koli. Here, come and take your new pet," he commanded.
But Calumet refused. The treacherous merchant laughed contemptuously at her.
"You have paid a great price for this bird, and I would not begrudge you your prize. Do not worry, my dear child. I will not kill you. Enough damage has already been done to Koli that I not even need to worry about you. The Duke of Worl will pay me well. I dare say, I will live comfortably for the rest of my life."
He rubbed his hands together greedily.
"Come, get the bird. Now!"
Too terrified to do anything else, Calumet came forward. The merchant pulled a silver key out from where it hung on a chain around his neck, opening the cage, and Calumet glimpsed a line of inscribed runes. She took her new pet from where it cowered at the bottom of the cage because of the chaos. It was young enough to be cradled by her two hands, and the raven immediately fluffed up its feathers in contentment. The merchant tossed the four other ravens into the cage, and it clanged shut with a bang that made Calumet jump. The merchant gestured at it, saying, "It's a faerie cage. Your brothers will only be transformed into their former selves if one unlocks the cage with this specific key, and I will have it with me always. The other keys will just open the door."
The man seemed to enjoy tormenting the girl, showing how impossibly her brothers were enchanted. He motioned his servant forward to carry it. The servant exited the room, but the merchant paused before leaving. He turned towards Calumet and sneered.
"I hope you enjoy your pet."
Calumet could hear him cackling all the way down the stairs, but the little girl stood trembling with shock long after he left.
The door of the office flew open to admit Calumet's nana, and she gasped in horror at the carnage. Her hand flew to her mouth and only a soft "oh" escaped. After that, her lips opened and closed in a fruitless attempt to ask what had happened. Only the harsh sobs of her small charge was able to elicit action out of the older woman. She snapped into mothering mode and went to comfort Calumet.
"Th-th-the merchant! He… killed Papa! And he turned Jonol, Larn, Dover, and Scourn into four ravens, just like my pet!"
Her voice rose in volume until she was screaming, and Calumet told the nana all that had happened in detail.
The nana hardly believed the last part until she saw the bits of glittering black dust on the floor, along with feathers. Calumet had never been one to lie, and the sinister dust gave the distinct impression of magic. Fair Folk wares were rare, with a unique, individual odor, but she had never heard of anything as menacing as a transforming powder.
She examined it, smelling the sharp, spicy tang of faerie magic, and her heart fell. She guided Calumet away from the menacing stuff, her mind racing. Even if Calumet told the truth, she would be thought insane and unfit to rule Koli as duchess when she came of age. The nana grasped Calumet's chin and made her look up. The girl's tear-stained terrified face tugged at her heart.
"Calumet, you must promise me something."
"What," she asked, her voice thick.
"Do not tell anyone else what happened to your brothers. It must be kept a secret. If someone asks, say that they just disappeared and that you don't know where they are. Okay? Promise me?"
Calumet nodded, fully trusting her nana while the tears streamed down her cheeks.
The king had investigated into Rin's death, but the investigation was given up because of the lack of information. No one could ever understand how her brothers had disappeared without a trace.
So, a steward was hired to run the dukedom of Koli for the next four years until Calumet came of age, but he was a mean-spirited selfish man who was caught pilfering money from their tiny revenue. Calumet had him imprisoned and took over the operation of the territory at fifteen, but the damage had already been done. Koli had deteriorated to a miserable state because of the steward and the death of Rin, a sad echo of its former grandeur. Very few of the farms had survived the last winter, and the great mansion that had been furbished richly was empty and bare. Only twenty or so loyal families remained out of over one hundred that had lived on Koli land in her father's time.
Fortunately, Calumet's coming of age saved Koli from utter ruin, and afterward, it slowly began to heal. Families started trickling back to make their homes, and the farms began to produce food once more. News came from Worl that the Duke had died, and that his young nephew had stepped into his place, but there was no more trouble from the neighboring territory.
Calumet leaned out as far as she could through the open window. The trees were turning brilliant shades of orange, yellow, and crimson, and the sky had become crisp and clear. A flock of birds suddenly burst out from the trees beneath and turned towards the south to migrate for the winter, and Calumet yearned to go with them. She jerked away from the window and began to pace across the confines of her room. They were bigger than most in the manor, but she could only take nine long steps one way and ten the other before she ran into the stone wall. She sighed and cast a longing glance at the window once more. She felt so… caged, even though she could leave any time she wished as Duchess.
A few months ago, she had turned sixteen, a young woman, accustomed to her father's position of power. The tender eleven-year-old girl who had been abandoned had survived out of drive, determination, and wit alone. She had even kept the raven to vex the merchant and taught him to scout for her as well as to speak a human word. Boe, as she had named him, was her constant companion, like a second black shadow, and he could be seen perching on her shoulder or flying above.
Now, though, she yearned for adventure, for change, and the brooding autumn season especially amplified these feelings. Calumet strode to her bookcase and took out one filled with maps, information, and lore of different countries. It had a worn binding, and the pages smelled of leather, dust, and time. After leafing through the pictures and tracing different roads she longed to traverse, the inscription on the inside cover caught her eye.
To Little Cal. For your curiosity and to keep you out of mischief.
-With love, your brothers
And inspiration hit. Calumet clutched the book close to her, and declared out loud to the empty room, "I will go and search for my brothers."
Although, this was the first time the idea had been crystallized, she knew that it had been lurking at the back of her subconscious since that fateful day. And, if she succeeded in finding her brothers, maybe she could even track the merchant down.
Though only five years had passed, the difference between the eleven-year-old and the sixteen-year-old was immense, but sometimes the pain was as fresh and new.
That day in her father's office had been carved into her mind, with vivid pictures and sounds. She could remember her father's pale face, her brothers' enraged cries, and the merchant's laughing, vicious words. Calumet's face became stone cold and bitter. The merchant had taken away all of her family and her only friends, and the subsequent years had been a dark and lonely time. She had grown up as the Duchess of an isolated community with no friends or even equals within miles. The servants, even her nana, had treated her as her position demanded.
Calumet closed her eyes and willed away the painful memories. Those vulnerable years were in her past. She was an independent Duchess now, who ruled an entire territory with cunning at the age of sixteen.
But Calumet knew she could not leave right away. Koli was still recuperating from its rapid decline, and her presence was crucial. So, she was forced to wait for the right opportunity. Slowly, she would prepare Koli to operate without her guidance and leave in search of the remains of her cursed family.
Her chance came a year later when an incredible discovery was made in Calumet's hills and caves to the west. A rich gold vein was found, and Koli quickly became quite wealthy. The new source of income lifted Calumet's land out of its depression once and for all.
Quite a success by the age of seventeen, her sudden wealth and single status attracted many marriage proposals, but she refused all of her suitors in a polite but authoritative manor. The men could not argue with the steely resolve that revealed in her blue-green gaze, and it was filled with sadness and maturity way beyond her age. Calumet had experienced much in her seventeen years, and it showed in her eyes.
But her real adventure began on the sixth anniversary of her father's death and her brothers' disappearance.