So the PLAN was to write a 5 Things story about Diaval's collection of shiny treasures, as a New Year's Resolution gift for Chase_Acow. And then it just kinda... grew. Like, a lot. My intention had never actually been to write a novelisation of the film chock full of missing scenes from Diaval's POV, but you know what they say about hell and roads. Anyway, I love these characters, and really loved digging into Diaval in particular, as no matter what shape he's in he's always still a raven, even though he's a raven now with very unique experiences which have shaped him over the nearly 20 years he and Maleficent are together.
Since the setting is 'Sorta kinda highlands of Scotland' and the time period is 'fantasy medieval', I've taken more than a few liberties with historical accuracy in terms of everything from flora and fauna to medieval chandlers. However, I've tried to stick to roughly 15th century Scotland where I can, and it's not my fault if Hollywood puts 100 beeswax candles in a single room without thinking who's going to have to light them, how, and when. That said, Eyvind Earle was a goddam legend, whom I worship like as to a god.
The three specific trees (rowan, blackthorn, and oak) mentioned repeatedly through the story don't quite match up to what we see in the films. But they are inspired by the concept art and tie-in novels. If you haven't read Holly Black's Heart of the Moors, please do. I went a different route in this story, but I tried to keep in in line in terms of 'now' versus 'later' with her version of Maleficent building Aurora a castle in the Moors since I loved it so much.
This story includes excerpted dialogue which originally appeared in the theatrical cut of the film, deleted scenes, novelisation, and the January 2012 draft of the script.
The raven found the necklace in a huge, twisted rowan tree that grew on the highest ledge of the highest cliff above the Moors. There was a natural hollow where the thick branches met the trunk, and he only caught sight of it because the branches were so bare.
The pendant was a smooth blue stone veined with gold, taken from the waters of the Moorlands. It had a small hole through it at the top, so it could be strung on the length of vine. Wrapping around the cord on either side were carefully made spirals, tied off with strips of tanned hide. It was simply made; likely the work of a child.
He cached it in his nest in the ruins of a tower castle on the other side of the border of the Moors, with his other treasures scavenged from both the humans lands of Perceforest and Ulstead, and the faery Moorlands. The tower and surrounding walls had been in ruins, forgot by the humans who had built it, ignored by the faeries, as long as the raven had been alive.
As hoards went, it was a fine one, if meagre. He'd only just begun building his nest from stout sticks, lined with soft grasses, bits and scraps of silk, linen, waxy raw wool, and other fabric he'd found (stolen), as many kinds of hair as he could find caught on branches, even his own feathers that had been shed as new ones grew in. It was snug and warm, protected from the wind and rain.
There was a silver ring that he'd found on the dressing table of fat, ugly man in a large house in Castletowne. A bit of blue ribbon from the dress of a pretty girl who had danced barefoot at Midsummer on the village green in the Meadows. A collection of wooden, bone, and metal buttons of all shapes and sizes. A smooth birch branch with the end bent into a hook, that he used to get especially tasty grubs and beetles from the spaces between the rough bark of trees. A bit of gold wire that had been worked into a filigree pattern that might have once ornamented a faery's horns. The last of his cache of treasure was a single glass acorn, so cleverly fashioned that he could not tell if it had been made by faery magic or human craft.
The first snowfall of winter had come early, and the raven caught a gleam of gold winking in and out between the forest branches. He swooped in circles, lower and lower until he saw it came from the sunlight hitting the bracelet of a woman. Then he spied the delicate curve of her pointed ears, and realised she was a faery, though he had never seen her like before.
She walked across the highlands, leaning heavily on a staff of twisted oak topped with a blue-green stone shot through with gold and copper. The raven had never seen a faery leave the Moorlands before, nor had he seen a faery without wings, and was curious. So he followed her slow and halting progress across frost-cover fields and rocky rises, occasionally her steps faltering so she had to rest her weight on her staff before resuming her climb.
She continued at a snail's pace until she reached the ruins where he had made his nest. Finding one of the only dry corners in the ruins, sheltered by the overhang of broken stones, the faery huddled there in her moss-green cloak. She sat, staring out at the sky until the shadows grew long and the moon came out to paint the stones and her sweetly curving horns with threads of silver. She was barefoot, and thought she did not shiver from the cold and damp, her skin was pale as skimmed milk and her hair had been tangled into knots by the wind.
Cawing to announce his presence so as not to startle her, the raven landed on a stone opposite her. He could see the tracks of tears on her pale cheeks, but was caught by the green-gold of her eyes. Brighter than any gem. She blew a puff of air, as if she was blowing seeds from a dandelion head. Her magic swirled around his talons as the stone he was perched on became hot to the touch. With a startled cry of pain, he launched himself back into the air, circling the ruins until he came to rest in his own nook, out of her sight.
They orbited one another in silence for a few days and nights, warily. However, the raven soon grew accustomed to her presence. As the time went by, he spent most days searching for food which was becoming scarcer as the winds became bitter. He was in a farmer's field, chasing field mice that huddled in the long grasses when a heavy hemp net weighted with stones pinned him to the ground. Before he could work himself free, using his sharp beak or talons to slice through the knots, the dogs came.
Ravens were no friend to dogs, and the raven cawed frantically, thrashing in blind panic as the farmer danced around him. The man was crowing with triumph at having caught a wicked bird who had never even once stolen a single stalk of the man's grain in all the days of his brief life.
(Other men's grain, surely. But this was his first visit to this field.)
The raven flapped his wings, hopping from side to side, as the man raised a blackthorn cudgel to try to smash his skull in.
That was when the magic took hold of him. He writhed in its grasp as primaries became fingers, talons feet, his sleek black feathers disappeared leaving him plucked like a chicken in an inn-yard, and hair sprouted all over his head where his sleek black feathers should have been. His beak shrank and then was gone entirely, transformed into a pointed nose and strange, mobile mouth. It took only the span of a breath, but it seemed to him to be an eternity. As the black smoke vanished, he stumbled to his feet as a man instead of a raven.
He tossed off the net while the farmer and his whining dogs fled in fear. But the raven could only look down at his human body with complete and utter dismay. How would he get back to his nest like this? What other raven would recognise him in such a state?
Where were his wings?
Then she walked out of the wheat field, and they circled one another once more. She was no less imposing from his new vantage point.
"What have you done to my beautiful self?" he asked, not even questioning how he knew to speak. Magic was magic, and he was caught up in it now; there was nothing for a common raven to do about it.
"Would you rather I let them beat you to death?" she asked.
"I'm not certain," he said truthfully. The new shape felt awkward and ungainly, even if he could see some advantages of it. He wasn't sure if he'd been given a choice that he would have willingly traded away his wings. Also, the wind was so much colder to a man's skin instead of a raven's feathers.
"Stop complaining," she chastised him. "I saved your life."
The raven was immediately contrite. "Forgive me," he said, lowering his eyes.
"What do I call you?"
"Diaval," he said, and it was odd hearing his name falling from human lips, shaped by a human tongue. But it was his true name. He owed her that and more. "And in return for saving my life, I am your servant. Whatever you need."
He bowed his head. Strands of black hair fell in front of his eyes, obscuring for a moment her brilliant gold eyes and their ring of eternal summer green.
"Wings," she said, her jaw twitching. "I need you to be my wings."
"I can hardly be your wings like this, now can I?" he said frankly, and she eyed him the way he would a nice juicy mouse.
"You'd be surprised," she said, and beckoned for him to follow her.
He wasn't sure the clothes stolen off the wicker scarecrow were any improvement over his nakedness. They were nothing like his beautiful, sleek feathers, but at least he was no longer shivering from cold. She tilted her head, as if inspecting him, and twisted her fingers.
He was enveloped once more in the warm tickle of magic, this time the black smoke remaking him. The mud and dirt that covered him from head to foot was washed away, the simple black garments he wore fitted to his new shape. The ragged coat became finer, longer, tanned leather to keep off the rain, and covered the simple black shirt and leather trews that protected the rest of his fragile, naked human form.
He stamped his feet, trying to get used to the black leather boots, wiggling human toes inside them, and fought to keep the frown from his face. The leather belt kept the black shirt from hanging halfway to his knees, but the fabric itself was of good quality. The feel of the laces was too much like a noose around his neck, so he untied them immediately, leaving it open at the throat to show raised markings in the shape of bird tracks.
"Thank you," he said, waiting for her to offer her name. When she did not, he simply bowed, "...Mistress."
She smiled, and with another twist of her fingers, he was back in his own shape again, relief flooding him as his broad wings caught the updraft. So he had not lost his wings; only traded them at her whim for a new shape. He could get used to being a raven-man, the raven thought.
For one thing, it would be much easier to fight back, should a farmer and his dogs threaten him again.
When they arrived back at the ruins, she changed him into a human once more. This time the transformation was swifter, and his clothes appeared even as (most of) his feathers disappeared. Running his hands through the strange hair on his head, he'd encountered a few sleek, iridescent black feathers among the strands. So it seemed that even as a man, he was still in some ways still (always) a raven.
Looking around them, Diaval saw their home through human eyes for the first time. It looked gloomy, dark, and as if it was about to fall off the edge of the world. However, with a twitch of her fingers, tree roots rose from the soil, creating a beautiful leafy shelter from the elements using the mossy half-destroyed walls as their guide. Ripe fruit hung from some of the branches despite the winter chill. He watched in silence as his new mistress gathered enough for herself and, casting him a measuring look, him as well.
They sat and ate a feast of pears, plums, sour blackthorn berries, and even glossy black cherries. The thick green moss that covered the stones had grown as well, deeper and richer, the clean scent of peat rising from it. It kept the chill from the stones from leeching all the warmth from their bodies, even as the trees blocked the bitter wind.
He tilted his head, watching her with open curiosity. She moved awkwardly, and he saw her flinch when she attempted to rest against the curving trunk of a tree that continued growing slowly as they ate. He wondered if she had been somehow injured in the battle at the edge of the Moors. He hadn't been there, but news of battles reach carrion birds quickly.
"Do you know who I am?" she finally asked him, and he nearly choked on a chunk of sweet pear.
"Only that you are a faery, and I am your servant."
"I'm Maleficent," she said, watching him intently. "Protector of the Moors."
Diaval fitted this piece of the growing puzzle into place as he continued to eat. He had heard of her. Birds were gossips, and even the ravens of the wintry North had heard of her. But he had never thought to meet her. His forays into the Moors were few, and quick. The faeries could do just as much damage to a raven as a human could, if they felt threatened.
"Mistress, you're a long way from the Moors, if you don't mind me saying so."
"I do mind," she said, and he bowed his head once more, chastised. "My wings were stolen from me."
He itched to ask how such a thing was possible, why anyone would do such a terrible thing. But raven or human, he could see the depth of her pain and what the price of this admission of betrayal cost her. So Diaval kept silent. She was proud, his mistress. Prickly as a rosebush, temperamental as the weather. But ravens were patient. So the silence stretched between them as the stones from the fruit he had just eaten slowly began to sprout at their feet. He wondered if in a hundred years there would be groves of fruit trees on this rocky outcropping, instead of a mouldering pile of stones from some forgotten kingdom.
Maleficent sighed, wincing as she squared her shoulders, her spine straight as a new sapling. "I cannot be Protector of the Moors like this. I need time to heal, and think. The king's army will return, knowing I am not able to protect the Moors as I once did. But that does not mean I cannot lead my people into battle against the humans, if I must."
"I am at your command," Diaval said, wiping juice from his chin and straightening his coat. "How can I serve you?"
"I want you to fly to the castle from whence the king's army came, and tell me everything you see. I need to know how much time I have to prepare."
He nodded, and with a twist of her fingers, his vision was filled with smoke as he shrank back into his proper size, glossy black feathers sprouting all over his body just in time to catch the wind before he could fall. With a raven's eyes, he could see her more clearly, and saw the naked envy in her eyes as he rose in the damp, cold air.
"And one more thing," she added. "Seek out news of a servant who lives in the castle. A man called Stefan."
She spat his name as if it were a curse, and perhaps to her it was.
He cawed twice as he circled the ruins, and then, aimed like an arrow, flew toward the castle as swiftly as his raven's wings could carry him.
Diaval wished he could have seen her wings. He had no doubt that she had been sublimely glorious.
Diaval was gone for a night and a day, returning to the ruins at moonrise. She was just as he had left her, still wrapped tightly in her robes, caressing the knob of her staff absently, as light flickered within its jewel.
"Tell me," she commanded as he rose in man-shape.
Diaval had found every narrow open window, every water spout large enough for a raven to enter, and roamed the enormous castle and keep day and night, keen eyes watching, listening for every scrap he could bring back to his mistress. He had seen all manner of things.
The old king, he told Maleficent, had been gravely wounded by their battle and had named a successor. Nobles in silks and velvets were angry that the king had elevated someone to heir from outside their families. A coronation and wedding were being planned by frantic servants, amid much gossip. No-one, from the council to the stableboys, expected King Henry to live to see his daughter married.
He also told her the Moors were eerie and silent, all the creatures of the Moorlands keeping to their bolt-holes and hideys, the tree sentinels watchful and wary. But the army showed no signs of returning. Not yet, thought the forges in the castle never seemed cold, the smiths' hammers never silent. But many of the men who had survived the assault had fled. They were from the countryside, and knew better than to try to take faery land. New recruits had joined, but all remained restless and tense. As if they knew the storm that was brewing.
"And what of Stefan?" Maleficent asked, licks of eldritch green fire blazing in her eyes.
"I never heard the name spoken. And if I saw him, I would not have recognised him. All humans look alike to me, Mistress," he reluctantly admitted, and her rage shook the stones around them.
"Fine," she snapped, and drew him to a patch of ice. She passed her hand over the surface and it became clear as a polished obsidian mirror, containing the image of a human. Diaval didn't know what he had been expecting, but this dour, nondescript man in badly mended clothing was not it. Everything about him seemed brown and common as an oak leaf. Nothing extraordinary at all, but Diaval held his tongue. It was not his place to wonder how such a mouse of a man had wormed his way into his mistress' life, becoming dear enough to her that his betrayal could shatter her so.
Also, thought he was loathe to admit it, he had no desire to be a target for Maleficent's anger. For while his mistress had been growing in strength, so had her fury. She no longer wept silently in her bower, when she thought Diaval could not hear. Instead, she would fix her eyes on the castle in the distance and speak longingly of revenge and the havoc she would wreak on the mortal world that went far beyond the usual souring of milk, curdling of cream, and luring travellers to stray from the safety of the road with will-o'-the-wisps.
She sent him out again, and this time he stayed long enough to hear the mourners' keening, when the old king died. Humans trudged through the frost and snow as the king's body lay in state, and from high in the vaulted ceiling of the great hall, Diaval scrutinised every face, as they knelt before the body. He looked at every man, trying to match their likeness with the portrait his mistress had shown him, but it was not one of the common peasants that finally caught his raven's eye.
Diaval dropped to perch on the head of a stone knight adorning one of the pillars of the hall, black eyes keen as the princess approached. She was draped all in black, only her golden hair drawing his eye. But the man at her side in his red velvet doublet was the twin of the scruffy peasant Maleficent had shown him.
Diaval swooped lower, causing the crowd to murmur and make gestures to ward off evil as his wings nearly skimmed the tops of their heads. But he had to be sure. Perching on the stone lion at the foot of the statue of some long-dead knight, his eyes were level with Stefan, who's lean face had gone grey as spoiled meat.
Diaval looked down at the dead king's body, which smelled absolutely delicious, and then back up at Stefan who looked away as if he knew Diaval's true purpose. And if he knew his mistress well enough to betray her, then perhaps he did.
With a loud cry, Diaval flew through the heavy wooden doors which had been propped open to allow everyone in the kingdom to pay their respects, and went straight back to the laundry. He'd quickly learnt that no-one gossiped like the women in the laundry, who were charged with the back-breaking work of removing blood and filth from every bit of cloth that touched the skin of anyone who lived in the enormous castle, from the lowest servant to the highest ranking noble.
It was from them that he learnt that Good Queen Mary had died years ago of a fever that had also nearly taken the princess as well. Despite being counselled many times to remarry to get a male heir, King Henry had honoured the memory of his wife. Princess Leila was his father's greatest joy—and the kingdom's best hope for an alliance with the neighbouring kingdom of Ulstead. However, King John had taken a wife from a neighbouring kingdom, and his heir was still in nappies.
All the preening peacocks of the court who had hoped to be elevated to Prince Consort upon Henry's death were furious when he'd named a stranger his heir. A man of no family, no breeding. Surely, they whispered among themselves, the king could have rewarded him with a fine holding—a croft and cattle on good grazing land. But to give a commoner the princess and the crown? Worse yet, the King's own servant?
Everyone knew Henry made rash promises, but they were shocked when he had not recanted the grandiose vow made on his deathbed. Of course, he'd died mere days later, so who knew what was true? There had been talk, the laundresses whisper-shouted in the steaming laundry. Oh, there had been talk. Rumours of assassins, and daggers in the night. But nothing had come of it, and as soon as the old king's body was put in the ground, the wedding and coronation would take place.
Diaval spent nearly a fortnight at the castle, slipping unnoticed through stables and laundry, training yard and barracks. He saw the princess put off her mourning black, and being fitted for her wedding finery. In her bright solar, he heard her ladies-in-waiting worrying at how much weight the girl had lost in recent weeks. She had always been fragile, ever since taking fever as a child, her maids would whisper to one another over their needlework, where no-one but a raven might eavesdrop.
His eye caught a bright spot of colour and he perched in a lower window for a better look at the blue stone that she wore on a thin gold chain. Her hand went to it often, as if she drew strength from it. There was something familiar about the exact shade of blue.
Diaval watched awkward dinners in the great hall, where the princess was sat at Stefan's side at the high table, while the other nobles cast dark looks in his direction. But day by day, Leila seemed to warm to Stefan, whose whispers even brought blushes to her cheeks now and then.
At night, Diaval crept through the open window in the lady's maid's quarters adjacent to the princess' bedchamber, and on silent wings, perched on one of the carved wooden lions that decorated the headboard of the girl's four-poster bed. The curtains were drawn, as even with the fire roaring in the hearth, the chill of winter had already set into the stone. But hanging around her neck as she slept was the blue stone, thin veins of gold winking in the dim light.
The workmanship was better, of course. No doubt Stefan had given the stone over to one of the court artisans to set on its thin chain. But it was twin to the stone strung on the knotted bit of vine in Diaval's nest, he was sure of it. Another puzzle piece clicked into place, and bird or man, he did not like the image that was emerging.
The wedding and coronation were attended by every noble in the land, but the borders had been closed to visitors from the other kingdoms that bordered on the Moors. Stefan had been dressed once more in rich red velvet and gold, the colours of the rampant lion standard that adorned every banner that hung from the castle ramparts.
As soon as the crown was settled on his lank brown hair, and voices rose to hail King Stefan, first of his name, Diaval leapt into the air and crossed the distance between the castle and the ruins as if the devil himself were chasing his tail feathers.
His mistress was waiting for him, as she had been every night since he'd begun his covert surveillance of the castle and Stefan.
As soon as she spotted him, he hit the ground on feet instead of talons, stumbling before he righted himself. The sun had set, and frost sparkled in the moonlight, and Diaval told her everything he'd learned. Everything he'd seen.
The only detail he held back were the necklaces of Moorland stones—one in his nest, one around a queen's throat. He decided he'd made the correct choice when, trembling with rage, Maleficent realised Stefan had traded her wings for the crown.
Diaval shielded his eyes as she unleashed a wave of dark magic that sent a spire of green fire high up into the clouds. He tried to keep himself from trembling, but his heart was caught in his throat at her desperate cry of pain that echoed across the land, and sickly green lightning flickered in the roiling black storm clouds that gathered overhead.
But once her rage was spent, she was still and silent as if she were carved of stone. The glow in her staff dimmed until it died completely, and the sudden wind that had torn at his hair and clothes dropped back to an icy whisper of a breeze.
"Now what, Mistress?" he finally asked, and she started back towards her bower.
"Rest," she said over her shoulder. "Tomorrow we go home."
As dawn broke, Diaval rose from his nest, wings drooping as he realised he would have to begin all over again in the Moors.
He'd spent nearly all summer foraging to build it, and it would be impractical to try and transport it, even with fingers instead of talons. When he'd asked her if he could gather his things, she'd looked surprised. But she picked up a leaf from her bower, and a shower of gold changed it into a sturdy leather pocket held closed with drawstrings. He'd filled the pouch with his treasures before she changed him back. As they began the long march from the ruins to the Moors, he clutched his prize in his talons as he wheeled above her.
She wrought devastation to the human lands in her wake. Walls marking the edges of fields were torn apart, the stones flying into the air as if invisible giants tossed them like pebbles into the wind behind her. Fence posts pulled themselves from the ground like blades of grass. Roads that had likely had been used since Roman times grew carpets of nettles and thickets of brambles, making them impassable. Livestock fled their pens, to wander the hills, and the green-tinged storm clouds followed above them, casting a long, dark shadow over the Moors.
Maleficent brought winter to the Moors, as she took her throne, Diaval beside her. As lightning cracked overhead and all the faeries of the Moorlands knelt and swore fealty, she stroked Diaval's sleek feathers with her fingertips, and he puffed out his chest with pride. She was Maleficent, the first Queen of the Moors. And he was hers.
That night, he'd flown back up to the rowan tree, and hid his pouch of treasures where he'd first found the necklace. He'd enlarged the hole just a bit with talon and beak, and the brown leather made it look nearly invisible, even from only a few feet away. He had thought to make his nest there, but realised swiftly that he would have to choose a spot closest to Maleficent's bower. The rowan tree was completely inaccessible to her, without her wings. If she had need of him, the last thing he wished was for his mistress to have to call for him and receive no reply.
Just as she had made a throne of tree roots with a wave of her hand, she had recreated her own nest at the base of a blackthorn tree next to a trickling waterfall. It was not a true hollow tree, but had been created by several saplings growing together, like a plait, into one single, enormous tree. Inside the arbour, the hollow was large enough for her to stand without her horns getting caught on tree roots, wide enough for her to lay down on the thick carpet of moss and lichen and still not touch the wood on either side. She had her own treasures that she kept there—rings made from bird bones and carved wood. Bracelets and other adornments that he had never actually seen her wear, but appeared to have been lovingly made, and he had no doubt fitted her like a second skin.
For all her fury, he watched her heal and mend the world around her—ofttimes without thought. Scarred trees were made whole again. Dead branches coaxed patiently back to life or—if there was no life left in them—mulched back into the earth to feed the roots of the surrounding trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses.
She still wore her hair unbound, and her gossamer gown the rich greens and golds of acorns freshly dropped from the oaks. She no longer needed to lean on her staff as she walked, but she carried it with her at all times as a symbol of her power like a king's sceptre. Diaval perched on the glowing green jewel at its top, when he was not spying on Stefan's court. And though she sometimes frightened him, he still thrilled every time she stroked his feathers. Her touch was always light and careful, and he'd noticed it was the only contact she seemed to allow.
At night, he slept on a branch above her nest, head tucked beneath his wing. When the snows fell in earnest, she wove a tight canopy of reeds and vines over her mossy bed, much as a human would hang thick curtains around their mattresses to keep out the chill. She would burrow into her bed, wrapped in her long, thick cloak. But as someone who was used to sheltering beneath wings, she always slept poorly, and woke often from disturbing dreams. He would fly down from his perch, and let her stroke his feathers until she fell back into fitful sleep.
As the nights became longer, sometimes she would forget to change him back into his true form, and he would drape his scarecrow's long coat over her, to give her an added layer of warmth. He usually took it back before dawn, before it could be soaked with dew or crusted with frost. But one night had been so bitter cold that he'd carefully lain down at the edge of her bed to try and lend his human body's warmth to her bower. He had fallen so soundly asleep that he was shocked to wake with his coat draped across him and her heavy-lidded green-gold eyes boring into his from across the small space between them.
"Please forgive me, Mistress. I know I've overstepped—"
"Ridiculous bird," she'd muttered, cutting off his rambling apology. She reached out to stroke one of the feathers the grew in his black hair the same way she would his wings when he was perched at her side. He'd felt awkward, his face growing hot at her lazy, sleepy smile. It was the first true smile he had seen cross her face, and to have been the cause of it made him feel as if he was soaring among the clouds despite being locked in the shape of a man.
A few nights later, she'd come back to her bower to find he'd found (stolen) all manner of bed linen from washing lines that edged the Moors, from rough homespun blankets to fine linen sheets embroidered with violets and daffodils. She'd left him a coverlet with thick wool batting, and they'd slept back to back in her cosy nest. To his surprise, she began sleeping peacefully through the night, though he was always careful to be gone before she rose in the mornings. And if the arrangement bothered her, she never mentioned it. He liked to believe that in sleep, perhaps she dreamt the steady warmth at her back to be her wings, returned to her.
The other faeries were frightened by the changes in her, but Diaval saw what they did not. He saw the thin cracks in the walls she had built up around herself. Through them, he saw the wounded creature he'd first seen weeping in the damp corner of a ruined tower. She had been beaten down, but not broken by what had been done to her. But though the angry cauterised wounds on her back had healed and were now covered in the downy fluff of a hatchling, the wounds Stefan had inflicted to her soul had not fully healed. Diaval worried they never truly would.
That she trusted him to stay at her side while she was vulnerable in sleep made Diaval puff up with pride, as he recognised it for the honour it was. In man-shape or his true form, he was completely devoted to her, even if they began to chafe slightly at the forced intimacy his vow of service created. She had shaken herself free of all her other bonds, only to find herself tangled in a new one.
The first time Diaval snapped back at her when she'd said something cruel or insulting, he'd braced himself for her wrath. For her magic to either steal his human voice, or burn him to a cinder in a blaze of green fire. But she did neither; only raised an eyebrow at his audacity, and he ducked his head to hide his smile.
Living in one another's pockets as they were, soon it became something of a game. She would tease him, and the corners of her mouth would turn up when he responded in kind. They would mutter and grumble, but it was like a hedgepig's spines—only sharp and dangerous if there was a true threat. And the few times Diaval strayed over the invisible lines they'd drawn between them, his mistress would let him know immediately. Usually by changing him back into a bird and then sullenly ignoring him for the rest of the day.
Secretly, however, Diaval suspected she was lonely and missed having someone to talk with.
From the other faeries of the Moors, Diaval began to collect titbits about who she had been, when she still had wings on her back and joy in her heart. How she had greeted every creature by name each morning, from Chanterelle the mushroom faery with his bulbous nose and lacy golden cap to towering leafy Balthazar, her most devoted tree guard. From the few remaining flower pixies who had chosen to remain when Maleficent took the throne, he learnt how she had laughed and smiled freely, always kind to everyone in her demesne. She had joined in childish games with the likes of wallerbogs and hobs long past the age when other fledglings would have ceased such silliness.
Oh, how he longed to know that Maleficent. The faery girl with the open heart that Stefan had taken from this world before Diaval had ever laid eyes on her. He treasured her smiles the same way he jealously guarded his precious hoard; all the more precious to him for being so rare.
The harsh winter gave way to spring, and the Moors came alive again, green shoots poking up through the frozen ground. Even the bare branches of Maleficent's throne sprouted, glossy green ivy unfurling as the rains ushered them into summer. She would frown at them, and shoo them away, trying to maintain her queenly dignity but they would stubbornly grow back stronger each time.
There was no sign that the humans would return with their iron weapons, to take what they wanted and strip the Moors bare now that the protector of the Moors had been vanquished. But the possibility continued to haunt her, and so it haunted Diaval as well.
He spent days, even weeks at a time at the castle, trying to be the very best spy he knew how. He took his job, as her wings, very seriously during that first long and lonely year.
Yet he'd seen so much more than just the treachery of the king, during that time. He watched the people, and saw how they lived and died. How they cared for their children, and their elders (or didn't). How they celebrated, and grieved. Starved, and feasted.
It's not that he hadn't seen humans before. But that had been solely through the eyes of a raven; not a raven who wore the shape of a man almost more often than his own. So his observations gave him context that he had, as a raven, lacked. At the same time, his particularly raven-y insights, absent from the lives of most men, served him well in understanding the human world from both sides.
What he'd learnt was that humans weren't all that different from ravens, in many ways. And yet they were greatly different in others. While ravens didn't mate out of season or for pleasure, humans seemed to couple constantly, no matter what time of the year.
He'd seen how dairymaids would stop to flirt with stable hands. How footmen in livery would get up to all manner of mischief in the armoury in the south tower. While he had not yet bonded with a mate, he recognised courting, and nesting behaviour when he saw it. He noted how many ladies bellies were swollen and round with their nestlings by the end of summer.
Including the queen's.
Diaval fretted, wondering if he should share that bit of news. But the washerwomen spoke constantly of the dangerous of miscarriages, stillbirth, and death of both mother and child in childbirth. It sounded much messier than sensible egg-laying. How humans managed to propagate at all completely mystified him, but propagate they did. With great abandon, as near as he could tell. Before their first hatchlings had fledged, they were already busy incubating the next it seemed to him.
While from all appearances the practice of getting a woman with child seemed to be great fun for all involved, if everything the laundresses said were in fact true then Diaval could only assume human men seemed to care little for the safety of their mates and hatchlings. If one child died (which they did alarmingly often), they would simply sire another. If a wife died birthing a babe, there were always other men's daughters to court. Mates weren't valued by their men the same way ravens cherished theirs.
It was much safer and more practical the way ravens did it—the males caring for their mates completely, feeding them and protecting their nest, while the females brooded over their clutch of eggs. Each spring dozens of fledglings were born, and Diaval wondered if he had remained a common raven, if he would have spent the season hunted for tasty morsels of mouse and caterpillar, carrion and robin's eggs for his own mate.
(Maleficent, he had noted, did not eat mice. In fact, she had banned him from eating them in her presence, surprisingly squeamish about it. But given the size of the Fair Folk in her charge, perhaps she was protective toward any tiny, helpless creature that could fit in the palm of her hand. Raised from birth as a protector, it would certainly explain why she'd rescued him—a common raven foolish enough to hunt on human land—from a farmer's wrath.)
He had been in the laundry, drowsy and warmed by the great gouts of steam that rose from the giant wooden vats, when he was roused by the shouts. The queen was beloved, Diaval realised as women left their work to spread the news. "It's a girl!" they cried, voices lifted in joyous laughter. Young and old, they left off their spinning and weaving, mopped the sweat from their brows and left the lye and paddles they used to stir the scalding linen, only to fall into one another's arms, laughing and weeping simultaneously.
He flew through the castle halls, all the way up to the queen's bedchamber, and perched on the stone sill high above the floor.
Leila, her hair and clothing soaked with sweat, held a squirming pink child to her breast. Midwives gathered up bloodied linen, and a shallow wooden bowl containing the afterbirth, bustling all around her with purpose. But the young queen was oblivious to the barely controlled chaos around her, cooing at her hatching. The blood had been carefully washed away, and the tiny girl wrapped in soft swaddling. There was still a stubby bit of cord bleeding sluggishly from where it had been tied off and cut. As a raven, Diaval couldn't help but notice such a thing. But the queen gave no heed, stroking the misshapen little head with shaking fingers. Diaval watched the baby open and close her mouth, just as a newly-hatched fledgling would, waiting for a nice juicy worm. or caterpillar
"She's hungry, Highness," one of the midwives said, reaching to take the child from the queen's arms.
"No, I want—" Leila said weakly, but one of her maids brushed her hair back from her face. "Please, let me."
"Your milk hasn't come yet," the elder midwife said sternly, but with a kind smile as the child was passed to a rosy-cheeked young woman who loosened the strings of her bodice and allowed the new-born babe to latch onto one blue-veined breast to feed. "Nell's a good girl, she'll keep the babe fed. You've done more than a day's work, Highness. You need to rest, and conserve your strength."
"At least let me hold her?" The queen's voice seemed almost like a child's, fussing, and the maid continued stroking her hair, and drawing clean linen over her as she began to shiver.
"There will be plenty of time for that, when you've recovered, Highness," one of the midwives promised, motioning for the wetnurse to take the child to a chair before the enormous hearth, out of the queen's direct line of sight. From above, Diaval tilted his head, watching the baby suckle happily, tiny hands with their tiny talons curling and uncurling as she was rocked.
Diaval thought she was a handsome fledgling, with long lashes that framed startlingly blue eyes. He wondered if, like a raven's, human's eyes were always blue as infants and would darken as they grew. The fuzz atop her head wasn't unlike a fledgling's fluff, and he wondered if it would be as soft and downy as a baby raven's.
There was the sound of footsteps clattering outside the royal bedchamber, and one of the maids rushed to the door. She dropped into a deep curtsey before the king, whose face was lined with worry.
"A girl?" he asked, and the eldest midwife came to his side, keeping him from entering.
"Born with the first rays of the dawn, your majesty. The child and the queen are both healthy, and need their rest. It was not an easy labour."
"May I see the queen?" Stefan asked, his unremarkable brown eyes filled with worry and relief. "Please?"
"Of course, Sire," the midwife said reluctantly, and made room for him to pass.
He came to his wife's side with tears in his eyes, as the sleeping babe was taken from the wetnurse's arms and carefully laid in her exhausted mother's arms. A milk bubble clung to the tiny pink lips before bursting, and both king and queen acted as if this was the most exciting, wonderful thing any human child in existence had ever managed.
"She's beautiful," Stefan said, cupping the queen's cheek. "Almost as beautiful as her mother. What shall we call her?"
"Aurora," the queen said sleepily. "For the dawn. Do you agree?"
"We shall invite all the neighbouring kingdoms to her christening," Stefan said excitedly. "One month hence. It shall be the greatest celebration the kingdom has ever seen."
"You're not disappointed that you do not have a son?"
"Never," he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "There will surely be sons, later. Please, do not worry yourself, my love."
The tender scene left Diaval completely bewildered. As he took flight to deliver the news to his mistress, he couldn't reconcile what he had seen with what he knew to be true. It seemed impossible that someone who showed such tenderness to his mate and fledgling could also be capable of the horrors he had inflicted upon his mistress. But he had seen the damage the human king had wrought with his own eyes—both as a raven and man.
How could any man hold such different parts to him, without being torn in two? Were all humans capable of such duplicity? The more time he spent in the borrowed shape of a man, would he too learn how to justify such evil to himself? Spew hatred and coo endearments in the same breath, without pause?
If ravens had a church, an almighty to whom they made fervent prayers, then Diaval would have wished to remain a raven forever. The fear that he would become capable of such things was one he dared not voice to anyone, because he could not bear the answer they might give.
He reached the Moors, and found his mistress alone, standing next to the waterfall. Blackthorn and sweetbrier, white mayblossom and blue linseed flowers, tiny lily of the valley and enormous spotted orchids dotted the moss-covered rocks along the water's edge. When she heard his croak, she almost didn't wait for him to clear the water before changing him. He landed hard, stumbling, but caught his balance and kept from toppling backward into the icy water.
"Well?" she asked, waiting impatiently for him to make his report on Stefan's plans for war.
Diaval shifted his weight from one foot to the other, much as he did as a raven, seeking his balance.
"Well, I saw nothing," he began, which was truthful enough.
Nothing had changed since his last report. No reinforcements had been called in from neighbouring kingdoms. The cached weapons were maintained, but there were no new pikes and swords added to their number. The call for soldiers that had gone out to all the villages and towns in Perceforest after old King Henry's death seemed to have brought as many young men into Stefan's service as it was going to. After the first rounds of deserters losing important appendages, the guard's numbers had stabilised.
"But there's been an, um..." he hemmed and hawed.
She lifted her chin, narrowing her eyes, and he knew he couldn't keep anything from her. He just wasn't sure exactly how to break the news to her without her taking out her ire on his beautiful self.
"Child," he blurted out, watching her carefully to gauge her response. "King Stefan and the queen have had a child."
Bracing himself for whatever was to happen, and hoping he might remain a raven-man and not a raven-man-shaped smudge of oily ash on the rocks shore, Diaval saw only her lips part, her eyes shining with hurt.
The word felt like a blow, knocking the wind from his lungs. His chest felt tight, his throat achingly raw, and in that moment, he'd have done anything she asked of him. Anything at all, no matter how extreme, if it meant she would not keep looking at him with such sorrow and pain.
"There'll be a christening," he said, having only recently learnt the humans had a special word for their offspring's naming day. She tore her eyes from his, as if she was afraid he could see into her very soul.
"They say it's to be a grand celebration," he continued, still wary.
"A grand celebration for a baby." She lifted her gaze, and her smile chilled him to the very bone. "How wonderful."
Diaval swallowed nervously, nearly stumbling back, away from the strange light in her eyes. "Mistress?"
She ran the pad of her thumb back and forth over her bottom lip as she pondered the news. The small movement was mesmerising, so it startled him when she snapped her head up, looking almost... happy.
He'd never once actually seen her happy. Content, perhaps. Wistful. But genuine happiness had seemed lost to her. Part of him wished to rejoice to see her spirits lifted, but the rest of him was desperately worried about what she might do next.
Because the smile she wore now held nothing of the fondness or warmth of the one she'd given him, that freezing morning in her nest. Instead, it was as cold as the north wind, and as sharp as his raven's talons.
"Come, Diaval. So much to do. So much to plan." She moved now with renewed purpose, shoulders back, head held high as she stalked across the riverbank, forcing him to hurry to keep pace with her.
"I don't understand. Surely the kingdom being distracted by the birth of the princess is a good thing? I heard no talk of making war on the Moors. For the next month, all anyone will be doing is readying the castle for the naming day celebration."
"Which is exactly why it's the perfect time to strike," Maleficent purred, and Diaval stopped in his tracks.
"Strike? You mean to attack the castle, head-on?"
"Not the castle. The king." She laughed. "Don't you see? It's perfect! Stefan will finally understand what it feels like to have a part of yourself brutally ripped away."
Diaval stopped in his tracks, mouth dropping open in shock. As soon as she realised he was no longer at her side, his mistress turned to regard him with a raised brow.
"Mistress, no matter what he's done to you, please tell me you don't mean to harm an innocent child."
"Harm? Don't be silly." Her tone was reassuring, but her smile remained feral. "I'm not going to harm the child. I'm going to give her the most marvellous gift."
As the weeks passed, Diaval grew less and less certain about his mistress' plan to disrupt the royal christening. She had sworn to him that she had no intention of harming the baby, only to take her revenge on the man who had betrayed her. But he bristled at her placating tone, and the way she waved away his concerns as trivialities.
"And the child's mother?" Diaval asked, thinking of the sweet young queen. "Surely you bear her no ill-will? She's done nothing to harm you."
"Hasn't she? She went willing to the altar, and his bed. She bore him an heir. She was as much the reason for what Stefan did to me as the crown!" Maleficent snapped. "Do not try and sway me from my path, Diaval, or I shall rethink how useful you truly are to me."
"You saved my life, and I've sworn to serve you all the rest of my days. Do whatever you want to the king. On my honour as a raven, I'd kill him myself if you asked me to. But not his mate. Not his fledgling. It's not the babe or her mother's fault that Stefan loves them."
"He's not capable of love," she snapped. "And if he is, then my revenge will be all the sweeter. Because that means losing what he holds dear will truly hurt him. And I want to hurt him so very, very much. I will take, measure for measure, his pain in return for all the pain he inflicted on me."
"But mistress, if you harm an innocent child, you will have given him even more power over you than he's already taken and abused."
"How dare you presume to know me," Maleficent said, and a spiral of green fire began to build in the centre of her staff's jewel. Diaval could barely tear his eyes away, but he refused to back down in the face of her anger. Because he did know her. He felt it in the hollows of his bones. If only he could make her see.
"If he truly loves them, as you say, then he wouldn't continue to hide behind stone walls and iron. He'd be man enough to face me and beg for my forgiveness. He'd beg the Moors' forgiveness, and promise never to set foot here again."
"Then at least give him that chance. For your own sake," Diaval said, and the second the words left her lips he knew he'd gone too far. But it was too late to take them back. And thief that he was, he wouldn't care to anyway.
"I gave him a second chance, and he used it to take my wings."
Her eyes flashed, and she snarled in rage as with a flick of her fingers, his human voice became a raven's croak. He cawed and clicked his beak in frustration, and flew in tight circles around her, but she would not back down. They were at a stalemate.
Diaval thought he would feel better, wearing his own shape. But being a raven within and without once more didn't dispel his misgivings. As the day of the christening neared, his worries only grew as no matter how he cawed and cajoled, flapped his wings a hairsbreadth from her face desperately, she refused to give him back his voice.
He hoped it was because she was afraid he could—and would—change her mind, if she allowed him back a human's voice. But he feared that she was punishing him. For raising questions about her plans. For daring to even think of the princess and her mother as innocents caught up in her and Stefan's war, in need of her protection rather than obliterated in the name of vengeance.
The morning of the christening, he was awakened by the branch he was on being violently shaken. He nearly fell to the mossy rocks below, before recovering his wits enough to spread his wings to slow his decent. The landing was still ungainly, but at least no-one had seen it.
That's when he heard her laughter from behind him. Of course his mistress had seen it. In fact, he was certain she'd had a hand in it. He flapped his wings, and then tucked them neatly against his sides as he turned.
If he still been in the shape of a man, his jaw would have dropped.
Gone were the mossy green and muted golds of the gowns and robes she had worn every day since he'd met her. She was dressed in a gown as glossy iridescent black as his wings, with a sweeping train that fanned out behind her like tail feathers. Her long nut-brown hair was completely hidden by the black fabric she had wound around her horns in a mockery of a lady's wimple. Or perhaps it was meant to be seen as her crown, now that she had declared herself Queen of the Moors. Even the gracefully pointed tips of her ears were hidden, accentuating her dagger-shape cheekbones and giving her the eerie appearance of a snake about to strike.
She'd painted her face as the human ladies did, lining her eyes with charcoal, highlighting her brows with bright yellow pollen. Her lips were as red as they ever were, but now that they were the only spot of colour aside from the gold ringed with vivid green of her eyes, they seemed the deep, rich crimson of freshly drawn blood. An image that as a raven would not have bothered him overmuch, but as a raven who cared for her, bothered him a great deal.
"Well?" she asked, raising a brow. "What do you think? I thought I'd try your feathers on for size, as it were."
He cawed, shifting from foot to foot, but she stubbornly refused to change him into a human.
"I don't know why I'd ask you, of all people, for fashion advice," she said sourly. She'd even painted the undersides of her sharp talons red, which made it look as if she'd clawed through someone already before she'd even broken her morning fast. Diaval had slept through it, if she had.
She held out her staff, clicking her tongue against her very, very white teeth.
"You may come as my familiar," she said sweetly, "or not at all. Your choice."
Her long sleeves nearly brushed the ground as she turned, and she was halfway across the glade before Diaval relented and took to the air, following in her wake.
By the time they reached the castle, the great hall was packed with humans. Diaval's wings ached from the long journey, but despite walking the entire way, Maleficent appeared fresh as a daisy and completely unconcerned. As she reached the open doors, she called a cold wind to her, which set the heavy iron chandeliers to swinging, their fragrant beeswax candles going out and hot wax falling to scald the unfortunates below. Banners and pennants flapped, and many a noblewoman's veil was torn from her head and carried away by the whirlwind.
The crowd parted, voices raised in confusion as his mistress strode across the marble floor, every strike of her staff on the floor echoing like the crack of a whip. King Henry's red and gold had been replaced by King Stefan's colours of blue and gold, splashes of them everywhere, right down to jewels set in his crown and the pendant Queen Leila wore at her throat. The rampant lion of Henry's line had been replaced by a stylised black dragon on a snow white field. The new standard had been painted on the guardsmen's shields, embroidered on their tabards, and hung from flags surrounding the dais.
Diaval flapped his wings harder, circling the thrones and landing on the head of her staff just as she climbed the carpeted steps.
On their left was a beautifully wrought cradle, three traitorous pixies who had fled the Moors for the mercy of the human king hiding behind its ornately carved wood and cloth-of-gold drape.
On their right were gifts for the infant including a gilded hobby horse, casks of jewels and baubles, chests of sumptuous silks and satins, and an ornate spinning wheel, the heavy golden thread wound around bobbin straight out of The Miller's Daughter and the Bodach.
"Well, well," Maleficent drawled as soon as the blue and gold Moorlands jewel around the queen's delicate throat caught her eye.
"What a glittering assemblage, King Stefan. Royalty, nobility, the gentry," she made a show of casting her eyes over the crowds, stroking Diaval's feathers languidly. Her smile when she spotted the flower pixies was feral, "And how quaint! Even the rabble."
Diaval's croak echoed in the sudden hush. Maleficent met Stefan's gaze, and he seemed to squirm beneath her uncompromising regard, knuckles white where he gripped the painted lions carved at the ends of the arms the throne. There was a pause, long enough that Diaval hoped the king would come to his senses and admit what he had done. Beg her to forgive him.
The moment, however, passed.
"I must say I really felt quite distressed at not receiving an invitation."
"You're not welcome here." King Stefan's voice was barely above a whisper; not a king's command, but a father's wish.
"Oh." Maleficent pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. She feigned disappointment, her comical frown melting into a smile that bared her fangs as she could no longer hold back her laughter.
"Oh, dear. What an awkward situation." She turned her face from the throne, her eyes glittering with malice, and Diaval shifted his weight on the knob of her staff anxiously.
"You're not offended?" Queen Leila asked, and Diaval desperately hoped that his mistress would hear the sincerity in her voice.
But instead, Maleficent turned back, her face painted with mock innocence that was clearly theatrical.
"Why, no," she assured the queen, who slumped in relief. But Stefan remained rigid.
Maleficent's tone was a singsong parody of Knotgrass the pixie's. "And to show I bear no ill will, I too shall bestow a gift on the child."
"No!" The king and queen rose as one, Stefan's hand on the dagger at his waist as if he meant to put himself between Maleficent and the child. "We don't want your gift!"
Maleficent watched him, taking a step toward the cradle, testing his resolve. But instead of defending his family, he remained rooted to the spot while his queen looked on helplessly.
It was the pixies who rose to defend the baby, much to Maleficent's amusement as Diaval hopped from her staff to the rail of the cradle's canopy. With a dismissive wave of her fingers, unseen hands flung them across the hall into the open chest of silk, which thudded closed on top of them.
To show her complete and utter contempt for the man who had betrayed her trust, Maleficent turned her back on him so she could stare down into the cradle.
"Hmm," she breathed at her first good look at the baby whose very existence had caused her so much anguish.
The child looked up into her face, cornflower blue eyes wide and curious. Maleficent squinted, waiting perhaps for the child's wail of fright. But all Aurora did was placidly stare up at her, kicking her feet beneath the heavily embroidered christening gown.
Diaval's black eyes flicked from his mistress' face to the child's and he clicked his beak.
"Mmmm." Her thorough inspection complete, she raised her voice so it might carry to every corner of the hall. "Listen well, all of you," she said, sketching circles in the air, and green spirals of dark magic threw her profile into sharp relief. "The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who meet her."
Tendrils swirled around the baby, briefly turning her blue eyes green as she continued to look up innocently into Maleficent's face, their eyes meeting just as the magic faded.
"That's a lovely gift," the queen said, but Maleficent ignored her, continuing to look deeply into the child's eyes, before tilting her head to give Stefan a sidelong glance.
"Don't do this," he said, his tone of warning, but his hand had dropped from his dagger.
Maleficent's finger went to her brightly painted lips, and she relished every second of Stefan's pain and helplessness. Her eyes glowed with green flames as she turned her head and her gaze fell squarely on the spinning wheel.
"But," she moved away from the cradle to stand before the king and queen, and vile green magic dripping from both hands and rising behind her, "before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death. A sleep from which she will never awaken!"
Her voice rose even as her magic did, the ghost wind tugging at Diaval's wings. He barely recognised his mistress, her beautiful face twisted by hatred.
The queen began weeping in terror, and Stefan was shaking where he stood.
"Maleficent, please don't do this. I'm begging you."
"I like you begging," she said, and the mask cracked, all of the hurt and anger and pain shining in her eyes before they went flat and empty. "Do it again."
Her eyes flicked from his face to the carpet and back again. Stefan took two halting steps toward her before he dropped to one knee. The council members and nobles were aghast, and whispers rose as Stefan looked up into Maleficent's face.
"I beg you," he repeated, but there was no agony in his eyes. No pleading in his posture or his voice. Just arrogance.
It was in moments such as those that Diaval wished with all his raven's heart that he was in man-shape, so he could wrap all ten fingers around Stefan's throat himself. Though his beak and talons would be more practical, when it came to his eyes and the tender cartilage of his nose and ears.
(Diaval was a carrion bird, after all.)
But ravens were not be nature vengeful—more like to banish someone who had wronged them, rather than harm or kill them. Perhaps it was the man-shape he worse that put such murderous thoughts into his raven's head. Humans certainly seemed to have a great capacity for slaughter. He'd feasted on enough battlefields in his brief life to know that much.
"All right," Maleficent said sweetly, and Stefan's shoulders sagged in relief. "The princess can be woken from her death-sleep, but only by true love's kiss."
The words dripped like poison from his mistress' lips, and the green flames of sorcery rose higher, completely enveloping her.
"This curse will last till the end of time!" she declared to the assembled crowd, the magic flaring and pulsing all around her. "No power on Earth can change it!"
There was a flash of lightning, and Maleficent strode out of the hall, nobles and peasants alike falling like ninepins to the marble floor as she passed.
Diaval looked down at Aurora one last time before flapping his wings and lifting into the air. Behind him, the sobbing queen ran to the gilded cot with its cloth-of-gold hanging while Stefan still knelt on the stone dais in front of his throne, Maleficent's laughter ringing in the air.
Diaval felt only pity for the young queen as she cradled her babe, the plump ladies' maid who looked old enough to be her mother enfolding both of them in her arms and whispering soothing nonsense as the child began to wail, confused by all the noise and fuss.
Diaval cross the hall with three great flaps of his wings, following in Maleficent's wake. The massive wooden doors slammed shut so quickly behind him that he croaked and checked to make sure he hadn't lost any of his tailfeathers.
He kept stealing glances at his mistress, hoping to see regret or remorse. But she seemed serene, even gloating, as she froze the guards and townspeople with a flick of her fingers and continued down the road under the autumn sunshine as if she did not have a single care in all the world.
Only once they had returned to her throne in the Moors did she change him once more into a man.
He dropped his eyes, bowing his head. "I'm sorry, Mistress. The queen and her babe are nothing to me, truly. I swear on my wings, my only worry is for you."
He took a knee, unconsciously mirroring Stefan, and waited for her to speak. Order him back to the castle, or ask his opinion of her grand display. But she just looked down at him, and then dismissed him. He waked away from her on a man's two legs for the first time in weeks, and went to the rowan tree.
The climb was difficult, and he almost lost his footing more than once. But when he reached the spot where his treasure was hid, he added gold threads from the princess' cradle. Then he began the long climb down, wondering if he would ever be able to forgive his mistress, or himself.
The first morning after the child's christening, a massive bonfire had been built in the castle bailey. Spinning wheels were broken, then burned, black smoke rising from the castle day and night. The ashes and coals were carted to the dungeons, locked away to be forgotten. Weavers and laundresses, cloth merchants and spinsters, protests were silenced by the king's decree that anyone found hiding a spinning wheel would have their own backs broken across wheels and left to rot on either side of the king's road that lead to the castle.
The second morning, armed men were sent out riding, carrying torches and heavy steel swords and pikes. They found their way to the Moors confounded by fog and mist, conjured by his mistress' hand, and wandered aimlessly, unable to see or hear the jangle of the horse's tack or mail shirts and armour of their fellows mere inches away in the artificial gloom.
The third morning after Maleficent had cast her curse, Queen Leila's shrieks drew every guard within hearing to the royal nursery. Diaval, who had been dozing in the rafters of the laundry heard them, and flew to the nursery window as quickly as his wings could carry him.
The nursery was a large, airy room with tapestries hanging on the stone walls depicting a fantastic forest and its beasts. Enormous windows let in the morning sunlight, and dust motes caught the light like a shower of Maleficent's golden magic.
The queen—still in her night-clothes, hair dishevelled—was on her knees before the empty cradle, weeping when the king's guard burst in. Nell the wet nurse was in one corner, clearly terrified out of her wits, and two of the guards rushed to her to demand to know what had happened. But the girl was crying just as hard, if not harder, than the queen and could not make herself understood.
When the king arrived, he send all the guards and servants away. The queen's maids cast one last worried look at their mistress, before following the castle guards out through the huge doors that had been decorated with hammered brass spirals in the likeness of vines and flowers.
From his perch in the highest window, Diaval watched as Stefan knelt at his wife's side.
"Hush, my love." He tenderly brushed her blond hair back from her face. "All will be well."
"Where is my child?" Leila wailed, inconsolable. "Where have they taken my child?"
"She's safe," he assured her, holding her face in his hands. "I promise you, our daughter is safe."
"What do you mean?" She was completely bewildered. "How do you know?"
"Because I was the one that sent her away."
The queen fell back, scrambling backwards on the stone floor, a look of complete horror on her beautiful face. Stefan reached for her, but she shrank from him.
"What have you done?" Her voice was a ragged whisper.
"I have given her into the care of the faeries who blessed her at her christening. They have hidden her away, where no harm can come to her."
"She would have been safe from harm here, with her parents. With me. Behind strong stone walls, guarded by my father's army—your army."
"You don't understand—"
She rose, regal despite her tear-stained, blotchy face, barefoot in nothing but a fine lawn shift, her golden hair escaping from its braid like a wild halo. "Take me to her. Take me to my baby."
"I cannot. Even I do not know her exact location. It is for her own safety, I swear it."
"The faery has already cursed her. What more can she do?"
"You don't understand. Maleficent is capable of anything."
The queen's eyes narrowed, and she looked upon her husband as if he were a stranger to her. "How do you know her name?"
"You knew her name. When you were begging for our baby's life, you called her by her name."
Stefan tried to wave away her concerns. "I must have heard it from the pixies, that's all."
"What did you do to her, that she would do this to my daughter?"
"You know what I did. I vanquished her. I stole her wings."
"How? How did you even get close enough? Surely she did not stand idly by while you mutilated her."
"I drugged her. I gave her mead mixed with poppy tears," he said, and the queen's face grew ashen.
"But why would she take any drink from your hand? What are you not telling me, Stefan?" she reached for him, but he could not meet her eyes. "I know you did not love me, when you took my father's throne. But I had thought that since we were wed, that you had at least grown to take me into your confidences. Especially after Aurora was born. But you have still not told me the entire truth. So I ask you again—what did you do to her?"
"We knew one another as children, that's all. It was a long time ago."
"No. No, that cannot be all. She knew you and she hates you. Never have I seen such hatred except from a dog that has been whipped by its master, who bites out of fear where once it sought affection." The queen gripped the lapels of his dressing gown in both hands, as if she could shake him. "What did you do, Stefan?"
He placed his hands over hers until she let go of him. But instead of taking her hands, he strode across the nursery, his hands curling into fists as he stood over the gilded hobby horse that had been a gift from the king and queen of Ulstead.
"I should have killed her, instead of taking her wings," he said, and Leila stared at him, open-mouthed in shock. "I was weak. I should not have stayed my hand, once the dagger was drawn. I should have plunged it into her wicked, black heart."
"What did you do?" she demanded, her raised voice echoing off the stone walls.
"We were children. We didn't know any better! We thought..." his shoulders slumped in defeat as he face crumbled. "She thought we were in love."
"You made love to her, and then betrayed her." Leila's voice was flat, as if she were carved from stone. "Of course. Now I understand."
"You understand nothing." Stefan roughly grasped her wrist, spittle in his beard, his eyes wild. "She's no woman—she's a faery! They're not like us! It's not the same!"
"You're right. It's not the same thing at all." The queen tore her arm from his grasp, rubbing at the marks his fingers had left.
"I could have killed her. Instead, I showed her mercy."
"Mercy?" Leila said, choking on the word like a nut caught in her throat. "You tell me it was your mercy that has stolen my child from my arms? Murdered my father in his bed?"
"'T'was nowt but foolish pride and simple greed killed your father. The Fair Folk were no threat to him. He coveted the Moors. If he had just left the Moorlands alone, in peace, none of this would have happened."
"Do not pretend you are better than him!" the queen snapped. "It was your greed that set my father's crown on your head, and put me in your bed. It would have been better if you had killed her."
"You're right. It would have been." He took a step toward her, and she flinched. "Tell me, would you have happily welcomed a murderer into your bed?"
"More welcome than you will ever be again," she said, and Diaval thought that he might have to swoop down and peck out the king's eyes at any second, his face was nearly purple with rage. But the young queen did not shrink from him. Like his mistress, she stood her ground until it was Stefan who withdrew.
Instead of reaching out to comfort his grieving bride, King Stefan just looked broken and ashamed. Then his craggy face, old beyond his years, hardened like wood that had been calcified. Like the standing stones that marked the borders of the Moorlands.
"As you wish," he said stiffly, giving her a servant's bow, then fled the empty nursery, leaving her to her grief.
As the heavy doors of the nursery shut behind him, the young queen sank back to the floor. Her white-knuckled hands gripped the rail of the princesses' cot and her wail of pain was eerily like his mistress', in that moment.
Diaval watched from the air as a wall of thorns taller than the tallest tree in the Moors grew up along the border marked by the giant stones. Higher and higher they grew, vines thick as tree trunks with wicked sharp thorns as long as a man's arm. He'd come to deliver the news that Stefan had sent out patrols to hunt her, but from the barriers that sprang up before his very eyes, he was guessing she'd already found out.
It had been easy enough to find the wagon containing the three pixies and their royal charge. All Diaval'd had to do was follow the main road, watching for butterflies and listening for a baby's wails. He wished it hadn't been so easy, truth be told. He caught up to them less than half a day's ride from the castle and shadowed them until they reached a cottage deep in the forest that separated the human kingdoms of Perceforest and Ulstead from the Moors.
The garden was overgrown, patches of wattle and straw showed through the gaps in the plaster of the thick walls, there were holes in the thatched roof, but it could not have been abandoned long. The window panes were still intact, the plough had not yet rusted, and clean water came from the well, once the pixies finally figured out what it was. Aurora was nestled in a basket likely meant to be used to carry laundry to and from the stream, and waved her chubby hands in the air as Flittle's tiny blue butterflies danced above her.
It was likely a woodcutter's cottage. It was too large to have been a charcoal-burner's hut, and the stream wasn't deep enough for it to have been a millhouse. There was a flight of stone steps leading from a door on the upper floor to the ground, with frame where a tarp would have covered the woodpile and kept it dry. There was no wood piled against the wall of the cottage beneath the stone steps now. Instead it was full of unused buckets, benches, and other detritus that had been unceremoniously stacked against the wall, spiders and mice making their homes in the spaces between them.
Tall grasses and weeds nearly obscured the lot of it, but Knotgrass had already started shouting and waving her arms in dismay about the state of the place—clearly unaware that the modest holding deep in the forest had almost certainly chosen for its remoteness, the previous tenants turned out to make room for them. Their closest neighbour was nearly two days walk through the forest, and the path to the cottage fence was rocky and overgrown. If one hadn't been looking for it, it was entirely possible to travel right past it, hidden as it was.
Diaval took to the skies once more, flying up and over the wall of thorns to find his mistress.
Looking for the signs of her magic, and silently hoping it was would the gentle gold he would see and not eldritch green, he found her at the edge of the forest closest to the castle.
She no longer wore the same black gown, but a new one of rich, dark brown velvet that looked as if it had been gathered from a hundred stags' antlers. Her dark cloak was decorated with mouse skulls and merlin's feathers. Her hair and ears remained covered, this time by richly patterned snake skin, and for the first time he realised that the elaborate decoration of her cloak reached past her shoulder blades to cover the shorn stumps of her wings.
O Mistress, thought Diaval as he came to rest on her staff. She shooed him down, whispering "into a man," as he spread his wings to land.
He rose from the damp grass as a raven-man once more, and made his report. When he delivered the news that Stefan has given the child into the care of the pixies, Maleficent had nearly choked on her laughter.
"He's trusting those three idiots to raise his child? I shouldn't have bothered to curse her at all; the child won't survive a week in their care."
Diaval, pursed his lips, and then tentatively said "But Mistress, if the little one were to die now—King Stefan's grief wouldn't be the long, drawn out agony he surely deserves. In fact, he and the queen would probably just make a new one, and forget all about her."
Maleficent stopped, and then turned to face him and eyed him suspiciously. "I know what you're doing."
Diaval tilted his head, the very picture of innocence. "What would that be, Mistress?"
"It won't work, you know. I've no heart left to be swayed by a silly raven-man's arguments."
"I've no idea what you mean, Mistress. As always, I live only to serve you." He swept her a deep bow, and she scowled at him.
"You're a terrible liar."
"I wouldn't know where to begin. I'm as honest as a fledgling's pin-feathers, and as true as the sun in the sky, me."
The sound she made was somewhere between a laugh and an indelicate snort. Diaval would have grinned, but she changed him back too quickly and beaks were no good for that sort of thing. No good at all.
Maleficent couldn't contain her amusement as Diaval came to rest in an alder tree just close enough to see the entire holding, but obscured by enough thick branches so as not to be observed themselves, should the pixies cast their eyes their way.
The baby began to cry, as babies were wont to do, causing the now human-sized pixies to fly into a tizzy, as if Aurora was deliberately inconveniencing them. Diaval croaked, and clicked his beak. Even he knew babies didn't eat carrots and radishes whole. And with the nanny goat they'd been given tied not three feet from the squalling babe! If he had ten fingers, Diaval would have milked the goat himself, to stop the poor child's screams. The king could at least have sent the wetnurse with them. Though she likely had a babe of her own to feed and her husband would surely have questioned her absence.
The queen's anger and loss still plucked at him, making him fretful. He hopped from branch to branch, peering in the narrow windows to see the human-sized pixies unloading the wagon into the cottage. They put the cooking pots in the wardrobe, the chickens in the larder, and moved Aurora in her wicker basket to the corner furthest from the bed where they slept as possible, so the child's cries wouldn't disturb them. They used the thick, warm, ermine-trimmed velvet quilt the baby had been wrapped in as a counterpane, leaving the child with only a single blanket to cover her in her plain wooden cradle.
From her perch, his mistress had her hands over her ears to block out the child's incessant wailing. She'd thought it would amuse her, to see the pixies blundering about. But that had only lasted a single morning.
"It's going to starve with those three looking after it."
Diaval landed on the branch closest to her, doing his very best not to look smug. With a long suffering sigh, Maleficent flicked her fingers and a vine curled around the branch where they sat, red and while flowers blossoming before their eyes.
"Here," Maleficent snapped one off and held it out to him so he could take the stem in its beak. "The nectar is what I was raised on. The beastie will probably be fine. I'm sure it's not poisonous to humans. Well, fairly sure," she added at the fearsome look he hoped he was giving her.
Diaval carried the bloom carefully, so as not to spill a single drop of nectar, as he flew through the open window. When he perched on the back of the chair nearest the cradle, Aurora stopped crying and looked up at him with wonder. Her chubby fists reached toward the flower, and he carefully lowered it so she could suck the sweet nectar from the centre. As she nursed, Diaval couldn't resist reaching out with one talon and gently rocking the cradle until the child fell into blissful slumber.
That night, he added a seed pearl from the babe's christening cap to his hoard in the rowan tree.
To the raven-man's immense relief, within days Thistlewit discovered quite by accident what one was meant to do with a nanny goat with full udders, and soon enough, Aurora's diet was augmented with milk. Once the hens began laying, Diaval relaxed a bit, but remained watchful. The little fledgling seemed to be thriving despite her guardians' neglect. And for all she claimed she didn't care, Maleficent at least spared the child when she chose to torture the pixies by filling the cottage with pollen from pepper vines to make them sneeze incessantly, or indoor thunderstorms that only rained on the pixies, while the sun shone and birds sang in the treetops outside the windows of the cottage.
Diaval marvelled at Maleficent's laughter as the angry shrieks of the pixies could be heard from their vantage point halfway up an enormous oak next to a birch grove. He didn't think he'd ever seen her laugh from joy, in all the time he'd known her. Not like this. Not without malice.
She caught his eye, and tried to goad him into a smile. "Oh come on, now. That's funny," she pointed at the flashes of lightning.
But he couldn't stop the frown that had settled over his human face. "Mistress, there's something I need to know."
Like a candle snuffed out, her smile faded from both her face and her eyes.
"Really? And what is that?"
He took her tone as the warning she no doubt intended, but pressed onward regardless of the danger, hoping his sincerity and honesty would prick the conscience he knew she still possessed.
"When do you plan on revoking the curse?"
A muscle twitched in her jaw. "Who said I was planning on revoking it?"
"Mistress," he chided her and she turned away from him, frowning. "May I speak freely?"
"No." She raised her hand, but Diaval grasped her wrist with a swiftness that surprised both of them.
Maleficent froze, her eyes widening in shock. Always so sure, so certain, her mask slipped and he saw her fear.
Diaval had never once defied her. He'd never so much as touched her without her permission. No-one had. Not since Stefan. So his fingers wrapped around her wrist was a grave risk, especially given what he knew—what she had never told him, but he knew.
"Any time you don't like what I have to say, you change me," he said softly. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the sleeve of her gown. He held her loosely enough that he would leave no mark on her pale flesh, so loosely that one tug would free her from his grasp, easily.
She twisted her fingers and he could no longer hold onto her without human hands. He flapped his raven wings, and clicked his beak as sternly as a raven could.
"What a brilliant observation," she said archly, turning back to watch the cottage once more.
Frustrated, Diaval leapt from his perch and chose instead to spend the rest of the day trying to repair one of the holes in the thatch so that the next time it rained outside the cottage, Aurora would stay snug and warm as a fledgling in her nest.
Layering new reeds one at a time using his beak wasn't so different from building a nest, and the mindless repetition of the work suited him. There was something very satisfying to a raven about nesting. Even if he hadn't rebuilt his nest in the Moors to his liking, with the pixies masquerading as peasants, no doubt there would be plenty of work for him keeping the cottage up.
He glanced up several times, seeing Maleficent still watching him from her tree, her ruby lips twisted in a pout. He pointedly turned his tail feathers to her, so he could concentrate. Workers in Castletowne that had endlessly argued over their small beers as to which type of straw made the best thatch, and how thick the bundles should be had been unknowingly doing their crown princess a service. Not to mention, Diaval's own nest would be the envy of every raven in the Moors, once he had finished it.
He worked as long as he could, a raven's eyes being better than a man's after sundown, and he was still admiring his handiwork when Maleficent, staff in hand, appeared below him.
"Are you quite finished?" she asked, and he croaked in response.
Only once they had returned to her throne in the Moors did she change him into a man.
"What?" she finally asked, "I thought you liked being a bird."
But Diaval just shook his head, and looked away from her.
"Not as much as I used to."
"...and then every time I think I'm getting through to her she just shuts down completely. Clicks her fingers, and that's me sorted, back in my own beautiful self which oh-so-conveniently has no voice to reason with her. And I'm well aware that I pledged her my service and my loyalty, and I've no intention of withdrawing either. But I really thought she was better than this, you know? It's been slow going, to be sure. Fine, right, improving like dead fowl in August. But you've known her much longer than I. What do you think I ought to do?"
The towering tree sentinel regarded Diaval with unblinking eyes, and the lifted both hands in a helpless shrug.
"Great lot of help you are," Diaval muttered beneath his breath as he stomped across the Moors, leaving Balthazar shaking his leafy head. "Should have asked Chanterelle from the start."
Of course, it didn't help that the only faery creatures who likely would have been able to tell him about what Maleficent was like, before, were the flower pixies currently pretending to be three peasant women raising a foundling in a woodcutter's cottage deep in the heart of the forest.
Outside of Maleficent, and the older flower pixies, the majority of the Fair Folk were simple beings, very few of whom communicated in languages Diaval could comprehend. He'd already talked to the local ravens, but all the eldest of them could tell him that the Moors had changed. It was hard to imagine it being even more beautiful, but the ravens told him tales of plenty and splendour.
The remaining pixies were too intimidated by Maleficent, and afraid of her wrath ever since Knotgrass and her sisters had fled the Moors. There were rumours of pixies enchanted to look like humans, living deep in the forest between the Moors and Castletowne. Whether they meant Knotgrass, or other pixies, Diaval hadn't been able to ascertain before they'd climbed back into their hollow trees and shuttered their windows against him.
As best he could piece together, before King Henry's attack, Maleficent's joy was reflected by the world around her. The Moors had gentle seasons. There were no deep, heavy snows or ice storms in winter. Spring brought every imaginable bloom to its hills, valleys, and meadows. Summers never baked the land dry, but offered ripe fruits of all kinds. And by the time humans began harvesting rye, oats, and barley, an unkindness of ravens could live on fallen acorns and black walnuts alone, had they wished, and hawthorn berries and crab apples.
He sat cross-legged on the ground in front of her throne, drawing patterns in the dirt with a twig, and tried to sort himself out.
Since she had crowned herself the first queen of the Moors, things had changed. The faeries were frightened. Not necessarily of her, but by how her pain and anger manifested in the changes made to their home. In meadows, the carpets of flowers and heather were gone, replaces by thickets of stinging nettles and brambles. Once plentiful fruits, berries, and nuts were bitter, if they fell at all. The leaves had turned and fallen in a single day.
The Moors weren't dying. But in the past year, it was clear that they weren't thriving, either. Not as they had thrived for centuries, magic in every stick and twig, every single blade of grass.
Maleficent still used her golden magic to heal scarred boles and snapped branches, drawing the poison from wounds and if needed, the land itself, with nothing more than a touch of her hand. But when she drew on the inherent magic of the Moors in anger, the sickly dark green fire of her magic seemed to drain the land and it took longer and longer to recover. How would the Moors fare another five years, at this rate? Ten?
How would his mistress?
That was the heart of Diaval's worries. He worried she had been poisoned by her hatred, and there was no-one who could heal her with just a touch of their hand. He couldn't. No-one in the Moors could. He didn't know where else to look.
In the end, he decided that being a raven-man was much, much harder than being a simple raven.
Despite all Diaval's fears, it was clear by the time Aurora was three that some hope still remained that his mistress would revoke her terrible curse.
It was a beautiful day in early summer when Aurora very nearly fell to her death off a steep cliff while her guardians enjoyed a feast of sticky sweets, little cakes, and ripe apples in the centre of a carpet of wildflowers.
Perhaps if his mistress hadn't used her magic to start a fight between them, they might have noticed the toddler chasing the butterfly.
Or if the silly pixies hadn't had their backs to the cliff. If the butterfly's colours hadn't been so bright and tempting to the child. Or Aurora had been scolded and warned about leaving the pile of rugs and blankets.
Diaval's heart had leapt into his throat as his mistress calmly observed the little beastie was about to throw herself into the ravine. He cawed and cawed, flapping his wings frantically, and for one heart-stopping moment as the little girl's scream hung in the air, he believed everything had been lost. He hid his face beneath his wing, unable and unwilling to see the girl's tiny body shattered on the rocks below.
But her scream stopped abruptly, and there was a rustling and creaking sound that prompted him to lower his wing. That was when he saw the roots and vines grow and come together to form a cradle, catching little Aurora and safely delivering her back onto solid ground.
He looked to his mistress, who had gone back to eating ripe purple grapes as if nothing had happened.
Diaval thought that it had been an isolated incident, and dismissed it from his mind. Until they had been nearby the cottage, Maleficent healing a tree that had nearly been felled by a woodcutter's axe. Diaval had been in the middle of preening, and so they were both too distracted to notice the little girl had run past the cottage fence, completely out of view of her aunts.
Before either of them had even registered her presence, Aurora had flung herself at his dumb-founded mistress, clinging and giggling with her tiny arms wrapped around Maleficent's knees.
"I don't like children," she protested to absolutely no effect whatsoever.
Diaval had nearly fallen out of his tree as he watched his mistress gave in to the child's demands to be lifted up into her arms only to grasp Maleficent's horns and try to see if they would come off if she tugged on them like a pair of mittens.
The ground did not open up and swallow the girl. No lightning rained down from the heavens, to incinerate her where she stood. Instead Maleficent set her back on her feet, the child's delighted smile revealing her little milk teeth.
"Go. Go along. Go, go, go." Maleficent repeated, as if the babe was a buzzing insect circling her head.
Aurora toddled back up the lane to the cottage garden, leaving Maleficent looking deeply shaken by the encounter.
It was then, at that exact moment, that Diaval hatched his brilliant scheme.
As the days went on, he asked his mistress to change him back to his true form as politely as he could, specifically so he may go keep a watchful eye on Aurora's cottage. After all, someone had to make sure the beastie was fed and watered, and it clearly wasn't going to be her 'aunties'.
Then in the evenings, when he alighted on the arm of her throne, he would rub his beak against her cheek and jaw until she changed him into a man and he would casually bring up what he'd done that day.
Diaval would take great delight in recounting how the fledgling had looked, and acted, what new skill she'd mastered. How short her smocks had become as she'd begun shooting up like a dandelion. He'd sigh, then, and tell his mistress how much he'd truly wished she could have seen her, for she was as clever as a raven hatching, but with the sweet nature of one born to the Moors themselves.
Sometimes he'd throw in little digs at the pixies, and perhaps embellish the stories of their mishaps and incompetence just to rile his mistress enough to demand to accompany him in the morning to see for herself that 'the vile beastie' still lived.
It had taken some time before Diaval realised it, but once he had, his course had become clear.
So long as she remained completely delighted by torturing the pixies, so long as the wall of thorns kept the Moors safe, so long as Diaval could lure her from brooding over her slow revenge, Maleficent remained completely unaware that she had been caught by her own curse.
For Aurora was indeed beloved by all who met her. Including Maleficent.
And who was he, a simple raven, to point out the obvious to his all-powerful faery mistress, if she could not work it out for herself?
Every day that they spent spying on the little girl instead of the denizens of the castle was another day Diaval ticked off inside his head as a raven-sized victory. As the arguments between them grew less dire, and more playful. Diaval was certain that if he could make his mistress laugh, and smile, then perhaps someday he could make her let go of her hatred and see how they had become, in their own way, a family of three.
Diaval became little Aurora's constant companion. At the sound of his caw outside her window, she would bound down the narrow stone staircase the ran alongside the exterior wall beneath her bedroom under the eaves. He was more than happy to join her in whatever game she had thought up that day. Sometimes they were a knight and her trusty steed. Other days, they played hide-and-seek in the forest glen. In winter, they would play in the snow, sliding down gentle slopes of hills and then climbing back up again to slide down over and over. She never tired of their games, nor did he.
He would puff out his chest with pride every time she called him a pretty bird, and ran her fingers lightly over his feathers. She would sketch portraits of him, scraping the charcoal from the vellum and starting over when she felt she hadn't caught the magnificence of his regal profile just so. And Diaval had no doubt that the sapling covered in flowers which bloomed at all times of the year which mysteriously sprouted from her wooden bedpost was Maleficent's handiwork.
Unfortunately, the pixies' idea of how to teach the child her letters and sums was simply to hand her the bound volumes of books that had been packed in their wagon along with their pots and pans, livestock, and furniture and then wander off. The girl struggled along, but even the cleverest, happiest child in the world would have grown frustrated trying to decipher them without help. So it fell to Diaval, whose head Maleficent filled with human knowledge, so that he could scratch the shapes into the dirt with his beak, crowing when Aurora successfully learnt to spell her name and count to one hundred.
Maleficent seemed to think the entire thing an hilarious joke, but allowed Diaval to spend his days and sometimes even evenings with Aurora as she learnt French, Algebra, Homer and Virgil. All that would be expected of a royal princess, for Diaval soon learnt, eavesdropping at the cottage window, that was what exactly the pixies had promised Stefan. That when Princess Aurora returned to the castle, the day after her sixteenth birthday, she would take her place at court beside him.
But Aurora knew nothing at all about the bargain her aunties had struck. She knew only that she was not allowed to play with any other children her age. That when the carter came with more books, more clothes, more of everything and anything a girl her age might need, she was to stay up in the loft. That it wasn't proper for her to speak to strangers.
It was a lonely existence. Though Aurora was happy, she still yearned for playmates and to see the world that surely existed beyond the cottage fence.
The girl made poppets out of twigs and scraps of cloth, and imagined an entire world, based on the stories she was learning to read in the thick volumes. A child's version of what she thought the world beyond her cottage must be like. With lord and ladies, pot boys and goose girls, and everything in-between. And she told all of them to the raven that would come and perch on the headboard of her bed, listening and cocking his head now and then, clicking his beak when he didn't understand something, or had forgot some vitally important part of the tapestry of fictional people who lived only in her head.
By the time she was ten, Diaval had added a lock of Aurora's hair to his cache of precious things, as well as a wooden raven she had shaped from a piece of kindling, carving his likeness with her dull eating knife. It was ugly, misshapen, and his most treasured possession. Some days he would keep it in the pocket of his scarecrow's coat, so he could trace the shape of it with his fingers whenever he was away from the girl he'd long since accepted as his fledgling. By love, if not by blood.
At twelve, she could recite all the tales of Arthur and his Knights, the legends of Charlemagne, Adam Bell and Robin Hood. With a stout branch as her sword, and the cottage garden as her vast kingdom, she acted out their ferocious battles, playing all the parts and doing all the voices. She had learnt to sew, though not spin (even drop spindles were banned, in Perceforest), and could sing at least three songs all the way though, though Diaval was nearly certain the one about the boots was a sea shanty that no chaste young fledgling should ever have heard, let alone memorised.
On the day before her thirteenth birthday, Aurora broke her wrist, falling out of a tree. She had suffered all manner of cuts and scrapes, as all children do, although many had been prevented by Diaval and Maleficent from the shadows. For all their incompetence as guardians, the pixies were not blame; the tree the child had climbed was one she'd climbed a hundred times before, without incident. But when a tear-stained face appeared before her aunties, Diaval felt for them. Flittle had begged Knotgrass lift her ban on using magic, only to be met with stony silence. Thistlewit had cried and cried, thinking somehow her lack of wings were at fault, even though she had been letting the child roam the woods since she first began to walk.
All three were afraid what the king would say, if they returned the princess with a single solitary flaw.
So Thistlewit had splinted the wrist, while Flittle had given Aurora white willow and jasmine tea, for the pain. And unbeknownst to the other two, Knotgrass had stormed outside and took the felling axe from its stump where it had been quietly rusting for a dozen years. She was absolutely furious with the tree, and only Maleficent's magic had stopped her from doing both it and herself real harm.
Of course, Maleficent was furious as well—with Diaval, for somehow not stopping the girl from falling. With the pixies, for using their magic for such frivolities as hearth fires that never went out, or clothes never needing mending, but to allow the child to remain in pain for weeks on end while the bones knit back together? That was not to be borne.
The sleeping spell she laid on the entire cottage meant they could enter undisturbed. As Aurora slept in her narrow bed, Maleficent had healed the child's wrist the same way she would have a broken tree branch. Diaval perched on the half-door of Aurora's loft room, and had he been human in that moment, he would have smiled to see his mistress brush the blonde curls from the child's forehead, and tuck the blankets around her like a brooding mother with a hatchling.
The next morning, the pixies presumed it had merely been a sprain, and lectured Aurora to be more careful, with no-one the wiser. But Diaval knew that for all her protestations, Maleficent genuinely cared for her beastie, and would do anything to keep the child from harm.
By Aurora's fourteenth birthday, Maleficent had spent a part of nearly every single day watching over the girl, Diaval by her side. His trips to the castle to act as her spy grew fewer and far between, as time and time again the wall of briars proved a successful barrier. It had withstood everything King Stefan tried to use to breach it—from cold iron to fire, and countless attempts by the castle guard. And every time Stefan's men returned to the castle, bloody and singed but alive, Diaval breathed a sigh of relief.
"You're not as bad as you think you are," Diaval said once they were past the cottage fence.
"How dare you," Maleficent said sharply, and his answering laughter was cut off as she changed him back into a raven.
Maleficent and Diaval had spent over a decade easily evading King Stefan's patrols every time they travelled on the Perceforest side of the barrier to and from Aurora's cottage. But it had never once occurred to either of them that Aurora might be in danger from her father's men who had made camp a hairsbreadth from the wall of thorns that separated the Moors from the human world.
But a childhood where she had been loved, cherished, sheltered and protected by unseen, faery hands (and wings) had made her curious and bold. The forest held no terrors for her, by day or night. And her stupid, dull-witted aunts never once thought to counsel her about the dangers of men or beast. She may not have heard of the Moors from her (self-exiled) aunties, but she must have heard tales from somewhere. The tinker who mended their pots, the carter who travelled Perceforest with skeins of wool and linen imported from outside the Stefan's ban, perhaps a poacher's boy in the dense forest surrounding her home. Regardless of how or from whom, she knew just enough to wonder. She was curious just enough to wander too close, under the cover of darkness, while her guardians slept.
Luckily, Maleficent and Diaval were watching over her. At the first scrape of steel against boiled leather as a sword was pulled from its scabbard, Maleficent acted swiftly, and without a second's pause.
Diaval barely had time to react when she changed him—not into a man (who would have been vulnerable to their weapons), not to a raven (who could have done nothing but circle overhead and distract)—into a giant, growling beast on four legs that nevertheless ended in a raven's sharp talons. He howled and snarled, circling closer, herding the humans they same way a sheepdog would his flock, away from the bespelled Aurora and toward his waiting mistress.
For the first time in a very long time, Diaval did not cringe at how his mistress revelled in her cruelty as she lifted and spun the soldiers high off the forest floor, before bringing them crashing into one another and flinging them into the surrounding trees, smiling as they landing in a heap on the snow-covered grass. Those men could have harmed his fledgling. Diaval's deep growl and gnashing of teeth was more than just a show of force, that night. Had they harmed a single golden hair on his fledgling's head, Diaval knew he'd have done them much more than mischief.
Once he saw Aurora, safe and sleeping, trailing behind Maleficent like a child's kite, the blind fury went out of him. But remnants of it clung to him, like early morning mist.
"How could you do that to me?" Diaval couldn't contain his anger, as he rose from his crouch, wiping the dirt and snow from his hands. He could count the number of times he'd raised his voice in genuine anger at her in the past fifteen years on one human hand without needing his thumb. But he was trembling with rage.
"You said 'anything I need'," Maleficent reminded him, shocked at his anger.
"Yeah, but not a dog!" He shook himself all over as if he could shake off the way wearing the shape had made him feel.
She rolled her eyes. "It was a wolf, not a dog."
"It's the same thing!" Diaval cried, shuddering to remember the farmer's hounds. "They're dirty, vicious, and they hunt birds."
"Fine," Maleficent's tone was one of exasperation. "Next time, I'll turn you into a mealy worm."
"Well, I'll be a mealy worm, gladly. Anything but a filthy, stinking—"
His tirade was cut short, the rest of it coming out in angry caws and croaks. But instead of taking the path away from the wall of thorns, Diaval was shocked when his mistress parted them with a click of her fingers and led the sleeping human girl through them, to the Moors.
Seeing Aurora's pure, unfettered joy as she woke to the faery world around her would have brought tears to Diaval's human eyes. The sound of her delighted gasps as will-o'-the-wisps and curious dew faeries danced through the air around her made his heart ache inside his chest. Just as the animals of the forest came to feed from her hand, so the Moorfolk approached her completely without fear, just as interested in her as she them.
She ran the tips of her fingers over the heads of the bulrushes along the bank of the lake, her blue eyes nearly falling out of her head as she tried to take in everything at once. Diaval perched in the branches of the blackthorn tree, watching his mistress closely as she lurked in the shadows, watching the child with a haunted look in her eyes.
Thought they had made no sound, the faeries almost as one peeled off to hide. Even after all these years protecting the Moors, the majority of the Moorfolk—water nixies, tarrans, brownies, ghillie dhu, frost faeries, wights, silly flower pixies, and fierce red caps—still feared their self-proclaimed queen. Their flight seemed the signal for Aurora to turn, searching the deep shadows all around her.
"I know you're there," Aurora called out. "Don't be afraid."
Diaval could hear the smile in her voice, even if Aurora could not. "I am not afraid."
"Then come out."
"Then you'll be afraid."
"No, I won't," she promised, and Diaval hopped from foot to foot on his branch as his mistress did the unthinkable and actually came face to face with the babe she'd cursed for the first time in over a decade.
Aurora's eyes were wide, but with awe rather than fear. And his mistress was intimidating, in her fur-lined cloak of deep, dark velvet, the moonlight accenting the curve and sharp tips of her horns. She held herself braced as if for a blow, chin up, shoulder's back, a muscle twitching in her jaw.
"I know who you are," Aurora said, as if talking to a shy child hiding behind its mother's skirts.
"You're my Fairy Godmother."
In all his years by her side, Diaval didn't think he'd ever seen his mistress so overcome. She was never at a complete loss for words, yet Aurora's smile was just as disarming now as it had been when she was a tow-haired little toddler, chanting "Up! Up!" so she could inspect her horns.
"What?" she stammered.
"Fairy Godmother," Aurora repeated with complete certainty. "You've been watching over me my whole life. I've always known you were close by."
Maleficent took a few halting steps toward her. "How?"
"Your shadow," Aurora said, gesturing to the distinctive the long dark shadow cast by moon and starlight of her horns on the frost-covered leaves. "It's been following me ever since I was small. Wherever I went, your shadow was always with me."
Again, it was not an admission of fear, but said with such tenderness and joy, and gratitude. Diaval flew down to land on a branch, and Aurora's eyes lit up with recognition.
"I remember you!" Aurora exclaimed, and Diaval lifted his head and cawed with pleasure. "Pretty Bird."
He gave a courtly bow, as best he could with wings.
"This is Diaval."
He was pleased at both the introduction, and the fact that she shifted him without him needing to ask. Aurora stumbled backwards as her childhood playmate was revealed to be a raven familiar that could also appear as a man. But to her credit (and Diaval's immense relief) this too seemed to delight rather than scare her.
"Hello, Aurora. I have known you since you were a little one." He kissed her hand, heart bursting with joy at finally being able to reveal himself to his fledgling.
Aurora looked back and forth at the two of them, giddy as she spun around, taking in her new reality. The Moors were particularly fetching, lit by fireflies and faeries, under the light of a nearly full moon.
"It's everything I imagined it would be. Oh, it's just so beautiful! I've always wanted to come—" Aurora ran up to her and looked as if she was about to hug his mistress just as she had as a wee fledgling.
Understandably panicked, Maleficent bespelled her back to sleep, and Diaval couldn't quite blame her. It was all a bit overwhelming, and surprising. He'd never expected this, not in all his days and nights of scheming and plotting to bring the two of them together. He'd spent so long, meticulously chipping away at the walls Maleficent had surrounded herself with, after all Stefan had done to her, that to see a portion crumble and give way so suddenly and so completely surprised him.
Diaval saw Maleficent's realisation, in that moment, that she cared despite herself. That this sweet, innocent girl would be—was in fact—the true victim of her curse. She was real, now, in a way she hadn't been before. And so were Maleficent's actions, and their consequences.
Stricken, Maleficent couldn't meet his eyes. So she turned away and began the long walk back, leaving Diaval standing on the shore, alone. His heart that had been so full just a moment ago, now felt as if it were breaking.
Night after night, Aurora would sneak from her bed and walk to the wall of thorns, and call for her godmother.
The first night, Diaval watched as Maleficent turned away, and spent the rest of the cold night walking the perimeter, checking no patrols had carved a path through the wall. Aurora, heartbroken, walked home, and Diaval worried that soon the girl would think that night had been nothing but a beautiful, vivid dream.
But the next three nights, she was back, her young voice still strong as she called "Godmother, are you there?"
Diaval could see the battle being fought behind his mistress' eyes, and waited to see what would win out: hope, or fear. When the thorns parted finally one night at the sound of Aurora's voice, he couldn't resist flying ahead, crowing so the fledgling would know they were coming.
From that night on, from moonrise until dawn, Maleficent showed Aurora all the wonders of the Moors, waiting for the girl to put a foot wrong. Recoil in fear, or disgust from some creature too strange or frightening. But every faery was met with a bright smile and gracious bow. The Fair Folk stopped hiding in fear, when Maleficent led Aurora past the wall, but instead stayed to greet her and laugh and play with her.
Yet Maleficent still tried to hold herself apart. She would watch, even smile, as Aurora climbed trees, ate fresh honeycomb gifted by the flower pixies, and begged Diaval for stories. But she never joined in. She answered all the fledgling's questions except the ones that skirted too close to the truth, and Aurora never judged her for her silences.
Maleficent even put off her gloomy black velvets and silks, and though she kept her hair and ears covered. For the first time since Aurora's birth, Diaval saw his mistress in the earthy and muted shades of gold, copper, and jade she'd been wearing when they'd first met. Diaval didn't dare remark on it, but secretly he was pleased. Any tiny change gave him hope. And hope gave him peace.
Diaval was allowed to stay enchanted in man-shape for these nightly visits, at first grudgingly, and then quite graciously, by his mistress. He had grown used to his borrowed shape, no longer feeling as awkward when she traded his feathers for his voice.
So much had changed since that day when he had willingly allowed her to steal his wings from him, giving them back only to silence him or when she had need of them. Then, he had feared her. Or at least feared becoming a convenient target for her anger due to his proximity.
He knew, now, how trapped she must have felt—bound to the earth, helplessly watching every other creature with wings take flight. But he also knew his wings had never truly been stolen from him, for she was not so cruel as she pretended. So he no longer feared, when she changed him. Because he always knew she wouldn't curse him the way Stefan had cursed her, to half a life.
He was as comfortable now as a raven-man as he had been as a raven. While his human form was lean and slight compared to some humans, he knew exactly the strength of his arms, trusting them to carry a sleeping Aurora from the Moors to her snug bed before dawn. He knew just how long and how far his human legs could carry him, before they began to tire and he would miss his wings. His fingers were nimble, his voice could be raised in song that may not have been as melodious as a raven's, but didn't make Maleficent or Aurora cover their ears except in jest.
There was something special, and important, to having a human voice. He valued it much more now, than he had during that first cold and lonely year. Though he had asked his mistress, once, why she'd made him so scrawny a human. Surely he could have been more useful to her if he were big and broad, tall and strong.
"If you weren't so sleek and lean a raven, then you wouldn't become so slender and wiry a man," she's said. And that was how he learnt that she hadn't created his human form herself whole cloth from her imagination bespoke to suit her whims or tastes, but that the magic had simply translated who he was as a raven. It was also how he realised that once she had loosed it, her magic took on a life on its own.
Watching the girl play in the peat bog, flinging mud, laughing all the while as Maleficent herself might have done at that age (and according to a chatty Chanterelle, had done), something Diaval had feared long dead seemed to bloom in her heart. If not love, then at least light and laughter. Which were in his mind as close as made no difference.
And when a clump of cold, black mud hit her cheek, Diaval nearly fell over from where he lounged against a maple tree, convulsing with laughter. Where once he would have feared for the poor unfortunate wallerbogs life, Aurora's startled giggles kept any storm from brewing. Diaval's sides ached, from laughing so hard. The universe, sometimes being fair, it only served him right when, with a golden twitch of her fingers, he was splattered with practically a bucket of it, completely soaking his hair, and getting in his mouth and ears. Even up his beaky nose. But as Diaval wiped the mud from his eyes, he saw Maleficent was smiling, even on the verge of giggling. And for once she did not try to stifle it.
It wasn't the same joy she'd derived from torturing the traitorous pixies. There was no malice in it. The joy Aurora brought her was real. Diaval caught her eye and grinned, before leaping down to splash in the shallows with the human girl and the wallerbogs, shouting about taking his revenge.
It took the faeries nearly an hour, magicking every drop of mud and muck out of Aurora's hair and clothes, and she scrubbed her face and hands clean with a handful of grass. Diaval took it upon himself to produce the embroidered linen handkerchief he'd found (stolen) from the castle laundry from the deep pocket of his coat and dip it in the clear water of the stream. He then proceeded to swiftly and methodically clean any remaining dirt from the back of her neck, behind her ears, and from under her nails. She squirmed and complained of being ticklish the entire time, but then got on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek in thanks.
His mistress didn't even mock him for blushing beet red, but dried and cleaned his soaked clothing with a single click of her fingers.
"Thank you, Mistress."
"If you insist on behaving like a child, I suppose I ought to look after you like one. Shall I bring you milk-flowers and a nice warm shawl, as well? Tuck you in, perhaps?"
"Well, I wouldn't mind it," he said with a cheeky grin. And though she sniffed haughtily and walked away, he'd seen the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
As he did each night, Diaval stayed behind in the Moors as Maleficent enchanted the girl, and led her home to her warm bed. These moments were Aurora's and Maleficent's, and he would not intrude. She usually changed him back before leaving, and he would forage for his supper, or doze on a branch, waiting for her return. Diaval ate as a raven more often than a man. Smaller stomach.
(That and he found a man's stomach did not tolerate raw, rotting three day old rabbit as well as a raven's did. Unfortunately, he discovered that the worst way possible.)
But this night, after magically drying and cleaning their clothes, Maleficent had left him as a man. Her smile hadn't faded, as the thorns rustled and groaned, making the path clear.
Diaval waited all night for her to return, his long black coat held shut, his feet slowly turning to blocks of ice inside their boots despite Maleficent's drying spell. But he wouldn't go to the cosy nest of stolen blankets without her. He knew that in his own way, he was standing vigil. There was a feeling he couldn't shake that somehow everything had changed. And if there was one thing he'd learnt over the last fifteen years it was that Maleficent did not weather changes well.
She came back just as the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. Her smile was gone, and the haunted look was back in her eyes as her footsteps crunched through the layer of frozen leaves and grass, and she leaned more heavily on her staff than she had in a long while.
She sat down on the branch next to him, almost close enough to touch, and stared out over the waters as the nocturnal faeries began crawling into their bolt-holes and beds, and diurnal ones chattered like birds as they woke.
"Your 'beastie' safe, tucked up in her bed?" he asked, and she nodded dumbly.
He waited, as patiently as always, for some sign. But when it came, it was in the form of a scalding hot tear landing on his hand as she shivered. He leaned toward her just enough that his shoulder brushed hers for a fleeting second. She didn't stir, barely breathed, even. Just stared at the pink and gold clouds above them.
"I made it too well," she said, her voice strangled and raw.
"The curse. Even with all this power, I cannot..." She impatiently wiped away another tear before it could fall, and when she dropped her hand, the edge of her sleeve was close enough that it brushed his thigh. "It cannot be undone, not even by my own hand."
Diaval bowed his head, his eyes filling with tears. More than anything, he cared deeply for both his mistress and their fledgling, and seeing them night after night, heads bent close together, smiling and laughing was a wonder to him. To have so much joy and so much loss all happen in the span of a few weeks... It didn't feel fair. It didn't feel just. All it did was remind him how unbalanced the world truly was, and how little he could do to change it.
He ached to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Share her grief, and lessen his own. But he didn't. What he might have dared as a raven—to land on her shoulder, rub her cheek with his beak—he would not as a man. Not because he didn't want to. But because he remembered the look on her face so many, many years ago, that day he'd caught her wrist and asked about the curse. Ravens had been born and died since that day, and their relationship had grown and changed as well, but not enough that he would risk his touch bringing back traumatic memories of another. Not yet.
They sat, side by side, their breath fogging in the air as the sun came up. The Moorfolk gave them a wide berth, but for once it seemed to be out of respect instead of fear. Diaval watched her in profile as she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders once more. He knew that any second she would stand, and with a flick of her fingers he'd be back in his true shape, and she would disappear into her nest.
"Why true love's kiss?" Diaval asked while he still could, startling her out of the silence that had stretched between them.
"Mistress?" he said softly, pleadingly.
"Goodnight, Diaval," she finally said, getting to her feet and using her staff to navigate the slippery moss-covered rocks of the riverbank. He made it two steps in her wake before he was forced to take wing.
Spring seemed to take forever to arrive, but when it did, the Moors were flooded with colour and life.
But as spring slid into summer and the nights grew shorter, Aurora's visits were curtailed as well. Even with the boundless energy of youth, Aurora still needed to sleep sometime (as did Diaval, even if Maleficent seemed to believe otherwise). In fact, as a fledgling, she needed much more sleep than she was currently getting. Diaval had noticed her dozing during her lessons and chores, drawing the pixies' ire. And while Maleficent cared little if the chickens remained fed, or the goats milked, or how well she could read French or do sums, the idea that Aurora might be banned from the Moors alarmed her.
Her affection for the human child had always been tempered with regret, and since she'd failed to lift the curse, guilt. But of late, there was also a fierce protectiveness. Maleficent was convinced that world outside the Moors would steal Aurora's innocence from her as surely as the girl's own father had stolen her wings. And who was to say she was wrong? Diaval had witnessed enough cruelty in his surprisingly long for a raven life so far. So she did everything in her power—which was considerable—to keep Aurora close.
"But Godmother, if I told my aunts about the wonders of the Moors, I'm sure they'd give me permission—"
"No," was Maleficent's immediate, forceful reply.
Maleficent froze, and Diaval stepped in.
"It's just best that you don't." Diaval wrapped an arm around Aurora's shoulders. "Not all humans are as kind to the Fair Folk as you, and they might worry we'd try to steal you away to the Moors forever and replace you with a changeling."
"Would you?" Aurora asked, her blue eyes wide.
"In a heartbeat," he said with complete honesty, glancing at his mistress, who had just pursed her lips and continued walking.
Aurora laughed, and rested her head on Diaval's shoulder. He pressed a kiss to her hair, then let her go racing ahead to greet Balthazar and the other sentinels.
"Would you really?" Maleficent asked with a raised eyebrow, her voice pitched low enough that only he could hear.
"I'd do anything to keep her from sorrow. You know that."
"Hmm," she murmured, her attention entirely on Aurora as she chattered away at the living trees.
"But you should know, Mistress..." Diaval hesitated, unsure if it was worth spoiling the night.
"Know what?" Her voice was cool, and she tilted her head and narrowed her eyes ever so slightly.
The best way to say it was just to say it, Diaval decided. "Her mother has taken ill. A fever. They think she'll die of it."
"It won't affect the beastie," Maleficent said, dismissing his concerns outright. "She believes she's an orphan."
But she isn't an orphan, is she? Diaval bit the inside of his cheek, to keep the traitorous words from slipping out.
Not long after, Maleficent sent him back to the castle. Ironworkers had been summoned from every corner of the kingdom, and beyond, and she wished to know what Stefan was planning. The closer the date of Aurora's sixteenth birthday came, the more vigilant Maleficent became, and the more urgent her requests.
Diaval went, gladly. Now that Aurora was spending so much time in the Moors, he was just as worried as his mistress that the king would find some new way to breach the wall of thorns, seeking to do them harm. Even if he hadn't known where the girl spent her nights, the knowledge that Aurora could easily be caught in the crossfire was worrisome.
The armouries and training yards seemed little changed, but scaffolding had begun to go up around parts of the castle, and some structure was already underway. Diaval didn't know what a blast furnace was, but it was obvious from the carloads of ore being delivered, and the stink of sulphur that Stefan was planning on smelting as much iron as he could, to fortify the castle against faery retaliation.
Which mean Stefan was expecting Maleficent to bring the battle to him. Which meant the king knew something they did not. And that, too, was worrisome. But before returning to the Moors, he paid a visit to the queen's chamber.
Queen Leila's bed chamber was almost stifling, with braziers placed all around her bed, and a fire roaring in the hearth at the height of summer. But the woman huddled under the furs and blankets shivered with cold. Her hair lay damp and lank against her forehead, and her arms were so thin, her form so frail, it was difficult to find any trace of King Henry's loving daughter.
Two maids attended her, one pressing bowls of bone broth to her lips while the other mopped her brow with a folded cloth soaked in cool water. When outside the shelter of the bed hangings, they spoke in hushed whispers of their fears their mistress had given up, and was fading so quickly that she surely must be dying of a broken heart.
Diaval waited until each one had gone to bed, the last on a couch only feet from the queen's bedside, should her Highness call for her in the night.
Diaval landed on the bedpost which had been carved to resemble a lion's head. The heavy velvet bed-curtains blocked nearly all light, but ravens had keen eyesight. He looked down at the deep lines sorrow and sickness had etched into her lovely face, and his shoulders slumped, tailfeathers dragging against the polished wood.
The treasure he had brought was held delicately in his beak. He hopped down onto the mound of blankets, and froze when her eyes opened—just a sliver. Just enough so she could make out his shape in the firelight.
"I remember you," the queen whispered, her blue eyes bright with fever. He waited for her to scream, shout, summon the guard. But she did none of those things. Just looked into his eyes, and waited.
Diaval bowed, and then placed his prize on the coverlet, resting against her pale fingers.
It was a single lock of Aurora's hair, bound with faded blue ribbon. It shone like spun gold, and smelled sweetly of heather and hay. Aurora hadn't hesitated when he'd asked her for it, and hadn't even questioned why he wanted it, and for that he was glad. Truthfully, he wasn't sure what would have been his answer.
The queen clutched it to her chapped lips, her breath rattling in her chest as she drew in enough air to whisper, "Thank you."
Her eyes drifted shut, and she drifted into a fitful sleep, fingers still tight around her only relic of her beloved daughter.
Diaval leapt into the air, flinging himself through the blue velvet bed-curtains and into the air. Seconds later he was out the window once more, the close air of the sickroom nothing but a memory. But it was a memory that would haunt him likely for the rest of his days.
When Diaval returned, he did not go to Maleficent straightaway. First he returned to the rowan tree. Depositing his latest bit of treasure first, he made sure the laces of the leather pouch were tight, and it was pushed deep into the hollow between the wide branches, protected from the elements as well as the sight of other thieving birds and winged creatures.
He flew down in wide circles, his spiral ending at his mistress' feet.
"Well?" Maleficent asked, once she'd given him his voice.
He told her about the furnace and the smelter, and her expression grew thunderous. But the news that the smiths weren't using all the iron to forge more weapons or cannon seemed to placate her somewhat.
"Let him surround himself with cold iron, if he's so afraid of me," she said with a shrug. "I have no intention of giving him what he wants."
"And what is it you think he wants, Mistress?"
"My head, I should imagine. On a spike, or perhaps stuffed and mounted on his wall. Stefan never did have much of an imagination. But I have no intention of walking into any trap he might set. For now, my fortifications are holding, and all that matters to me is that he cannot touch us."
She smiled a self-satisfied smile, and Diaval wished he could share in her good cheer, but he could not stop thinking of the queen, clutching the lock of her daughter's hair. How Aurora would likely never know how much her mother missed her only child. How she had been stolen away in the dead of night from her cradle when she was only a month old, vanishing completely. How the queen had screamed and screamed, and cast her husband from their bed.
And Maleficent... Maleficent had gloried in Stefan's pain, never once caring that it wasn't just Stefan's pain. The world hurt her, and so she hurt others, and that original hurt never faded. Not while her anger and pride kept spreading the pain of what was done to her to others.
Like ripples from a pebble tossed into the water.
The Moors weren't the only land connected to their monarch. Perceforest was suffering—the people taxed beyond what they could bear, so the king could bring in iron and ironworkers from as far away as the highlands, even Ulstead-on-the-Sea. Mad King Stefan, the people called him. Locked away in his castle, dismissing the entire court, leaving a castellan to rule in his place.
Even Aurora, cosseted and loved so fiercely in the woodcutter's cottage, still mourned parents she believed to be dead. Still wondered every day if she had her father's ears, or her mother's singing voice. The pixies were useless, when she would ask those sorts of questions. But Diaval listened to her make-believe with her poppets, and imagined loving parents who never would have left her if they'd had a choice.
Diaval wished, on those days, that he shared Maleficent's cold-bloodedness. Just a little. For the fledgling's innocent wonderings and wistful sighs hurt him like the stones that used to be thrown at his wings by angry farmers, as he'd stolen kernels of grain from their fields.
Picking up a pebble from the shore, he turned it over in his hand. It wasn't the milky quartz of the pool of jewels, which served to keep the waters of the Moors pure and clear. Or the gold-veined blue from the shallows by the oak trees. It was just a smooth, grey stone, no bigger than his thumbnail. When he cast it into the water, the ripples didn't seem to go very far. But watching the water splash against the rocks on the far shore, he wondered if they really knew the true extent of their actions.
"What has got into you, Diaval?" Maleficent frowned.
"You've been sullen and cross with me all day," she pointed out with a long-suffering sigh. "What is it? Did I change you at some inconvenient time, into some inconvenient creature? A man, or some other beast of burden? Something on four legs, instead of two?"
Diaval knew that if he were to share with her what weighed so heavily on his heart, she would grow angry. Or worse, mock his delicate raven sensibilities. It wasn't his fault that ravens were known to be the kindest, most compassionate of birds.
He bowed, and asked if he might spend the evening as a raven for a change. Distracted, as the hour of Aurora's visit drew near, she changed him back instantly.
He chose a perch high up in the blackthorn tree, near where Aurora would emerge from the wall. Soon enough, the glow of dew faeries, fireflies, and will-o'-the-wisps lit up the Moors as Aurora greeted each of them in turn.
"Where's Diaval?" Aurora asked, glancing around to see if she could spot him leaning against a tree, or perched on a branch. Diaval crouched low, letting the foliage hide him from view. He was still out of sorts, and was certain that if his fledgling greeted him warmly while he was in man-shape, he wouldn't be able to keep from blurting out the news that the woman who had borne her lay dying less than a day's travel from where they stood.
"He missed his wings," Maleficent said with a dismissive one-shoulder shrug. "I'm sure he's around the place, somewhere. Doing whatever important raven things he does."
Diaval nearly squawked with indignation, but held his tongue.
Aurora accepted this explanation without further question, and Maleficent stood back, watching as the girl crouched down to converse with every faery that approached her. Whether they came to talk, or offer her gifts of shining pebbles, glowing feathers, and interesting gossip, she had a smile for each and every one of them.
He may have been able to hide from Aurora, but Maleficent cast her eyes upward and met his immediately. She tilted her head, studying him—no doubt considering changing him just to root around in his soul for her own satisfaction. But Diaval breathed a sigh of relief when instead she turned back to watch Aurora graciously accepting a frost-flower from a dew fairy.
"Do all the Fair People have wings?" Aurora asked, as Maleficent descended to meet her as she clambered up the bank, clutching her skirts to keep them dry.
"Most do," she said softly.
"Then why don't you? All the other fairies fly."
Diaval flew closer, alighting silently on a branch closer to where they walked, curious to see how his mistress would answer.
"I had wings once. They were stolen from me." The words came out rushed and awkward. "That's all I wish to say about it."
But the child was too innocent to recognise the warning in his mistress' clipped tone. "What colour were they? Were they big?"
"So big they dragged behind me when I walked," Maleficent said, and Diaval could hear the pain in her voice that she sought to hide with a smile, even if Aurora couldn't. "And they were strong. They could carry me above the clouds and into the headwinds. And they never faltered, not even once. I could trust them."
Aurora looked as if she wished to throw her arms around her and hug her, a desire Diaval was all too familiar with. But as if sensing the delicacy of the subject, she instead reached out a single hand and gave her elbow a gentle squeeze.
After a moment, Diaval flew down to perch on her staff and Maleficent reached up to stroke his back silently.
The time came for the girl to return to her bed, lest her guardians wake and find her missing. However, instead of putting her to sleep, so that the path from the Moors to the cottage remained a mystery, Maleficent allowed her to walk behind her, alert and awake.
From then on, Maleficent allowed the massive wall of briars to open whenever Aurora wished, so she could come and go freely, night or day.
When Diaval heard the bells ringing at the castle, and saw the people drape themselves in sombre greys, browns, and black, he knew that the queen was lying in state and would soon be laid to rest.
He stayed in the Moors, cheerfully braiding meadowsweet and wood sorrel flowers into his fledgling's hair, helping her make necklaces of sea buckthorn berries, and holding her hand as she very carefully climbed up into the thick branches of the blackthorn tree so she could see the nest he was building there.
It was more deftly made, and stronger than his first one. Large enough that even Aurora's slight weight would not shift it. She gave him ribbons from her kirtle to adorn it, and gathered sweet-smelling hay from the stable attached to her cottage where the greying draft horses spent most of their days asleep on their feet.
But it did not escape his notice that despite the warm summer sun, as Aurora's fifteenth birthday approached, Maleficent had returned to her heavy dark velvets and smoke-grey silks.
If Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle noticed that Aurora's chores seemed to all be magically completed by the time they awakened each day, they did not remark on it.
Diaval soon added 'milking goats' and 'gathering fresh rushes for the floor and for light' to his lengthy list of newly acquired skills, along with 'carrying water from the well to the laundry tubs' and 'chasing foxes from the hen house beneath the light of the moon.'
(He was only spared chopping wood because the pixies had, since their first day in the cottage, used magic to keep the fires burning and not one of them had the first clue how to actually use a flint and kindling to light one, let alone how to add logs, and bank the coals.)
Aurora worried that it was unfair of her, allowing the raven-man to do her work so that she may continue to wander the Moors with her godmother. But he did all of it gladly, and would have done more if he could, so that Aurora could spend more time in the Moors. He even grew adept at darning socks, and fine embroidery, though from time to time Maleficent had the threads knit themselves together because she grew impatient with his slow, methodical, exacting work with a sharp bone needle.
"You'll no doubt make some jackdaw or magpie an excellent wife someday," she would tease him, but he refused to rise to the bait.
"I shall indeed. Never has a raven had so much to offer his mate. Greek and French, piecework and embroidery, the fall of Troy and rise of Rome."
"The ability to count higher than five," Maleficent added wryly. But Diaval refused to let her dampen his good humour.
"When word gets out, the line of winged beauties wishing to court me will lead all the way from the Moors to Ulstead, I imagine."
Maleficent snorted, but Aurora grinned over her own work, where she was embellishing the hem of a blue kirtle with lilies of the valley.
"You are the prettiest pretty bird of my acquaintance," she said, as if her entire world didn't consist of three feather-headed pixies, her godmother, and raven who was only sometimes a man. "Any raven-maid would be honoured to have such an accomplished and handsome mate. You would bring her all the tastiest beetles, mice, and sparrow's eggs, and I've seen your clever work, making jewellery and trinkets. And you're most excellent at building nests."
He'd puffed up with pride as Aurora inspected the ring he wore on his left hand.
"See? Aurora appreciates my fine sleek feathers and clever beak, Mistress."
"Oh, as do I," Maleficent assured him with a fond smile that showed all her sharp teeth, and with a flick of her fingers, proved it by stealing away his man-shape, allowing the bedsheet he was hemming to fall to the damp stones and mud below.
Diaval squawked indignantly, and flew down to rescue his half-finished work before the wallerbogs could destroy it. Only after Aurora scolded her godmother to use her magic to set it to rights was he allowed to finish, adding it to the neatly folded pile in Aurora's basket.
The princess had grown so much in the last year that not only had her favourite gowns needed to have their hems let down, but new ones had to be cut and pieced together over the long winter. The fact that her aunt's clothing never seemed to need washing or mending, and that they seemingly wore the same shifts, skirts and overdresses was never remarked upon by Aurora. But Diaval sniped and grumbled about it so much that Maleficent had, while the child slept, taken to magically altering their red, blue, and yellow wardrobes so that their skirts refused to cover their ankles, laces of their corsets and bodices mysteriously snapped, and their slippers fell to pieces regularly.
Though it was no less than they deserved, Diaval pointed out that a much better use of his mistress' time and gifts might be spend on sprucing up as much of Aurora's small wardrobe as she could while the girl peacefully slept in her bed, completely unaware.
"Do I look like a brownie to you?" Maleficent said, her eyes narrowing dangerously.
"Oh no, Mistress. You're much taller, and a better cobbler, besides. But I imagine that if one takes on the responsibility of being a faery godmother, certain sartorial transformations are expected by their charges."
"One girl gets three new gowns to attend a series of balls—pure extravagance in my view—and suddenly I'm expected to spend all my precious time as a faery seamstress?"
"Well, if it truly is such a burden to you, Mistress, I suppose the poor girl can continue to go about in rags."
"I hate you," Maleficent said sweetly. But a cedar chest of new shifts, gowns, cloaks, stockings, and slippers was discovered by Aurora in the corner of her attic room the very next night, and she insisted on showing off each and every one to her godmother, who was smugly proud as any raven Diaval had ever known.
The pattern of their lives had long been dictated by Aurora's comings and goings. But never moreso than as the seasons began to pass between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays.
Maleficent tried to lift the curse again and again during the long winter and damp spring. Each time, she poured more magic into trying to snap the binding. Each time it drained her, physically and mentally, but the curse refused to be broken. When she had sworn on the day of Aurora's christening that no power on earth could change it, it had never occurred to her that included her own magic.
Yet she still tried.
More than once, in the hours before the dawn, when Aurora was tucked into her bed and dreaming of whatever it is human girls dream of, Diaval had seen the lights in the cottage windows. Green and gold, both. Heard Maleficent's cries, pretended he did not see the tracks of tears on her cheeks when she emerged from the forest of thorns on the Moorland side.
On those mornings, she would send Diaval to the castle to spy on the king. When he returned, it was almost always to find her with Aurora in the Moors, smiling and even laughing at the child's stories or antics. But with each moonrise, as the sweet girl waved to them from the Perceforest side of the border, both hope and sorrow grew sharper. More painful.
Diaval brought back reports from the castle of the people's suffering. Of the nobles' scheming. How Stefan was called 'the mad king' behind closed doors, and if it were not for the guardsmen he surrounded himself with, his own council would have tried to depose him. What had once been a thriving human kingdom was thronged with beggars. The price of thread and cloth was so high that even the richest families looked shabby and worn. Crofters had been turned out of the holdings when they had been unable to pay the heavy king's taxes. Good grazing land was overgrown, shepherds having taken their flocks elsewhere, and fields lying fallow because there were no young men at home for the planting or harvest. They joined armies, or became brigands on the road, because there was no future for them in Perceforest.
But he had no stories to tell her of the king's plans, because those Stefan shared with no-one because he trusted no-one. All Diaval could share were rumours and whispers. And rumours and whispers did Maleficent no good. She needed a war to fight, to win, on some front.
The days grew longer, and warmer, and that was how Diaval knew that their time was running out. He listened at the window at the cottage to the pixies as they talked about how pleased and relieved they were that their charge would be ending soon. How much they missed their wings, and smallness, and magic most of all. As if all they had done was give things up and give things up, for no reward when Aurora was reward enough. Aurora was more than enough for Maleficent and Diaval, and they would fight and fight and fight to keep her, if they could.
Solstice came, and then Midsummer. The days began marching toward the harvest, and then there was no time left. Diaval approached Maleficent where she sat beneath the shadow of the rowan tree, waiting for Aurora.
"Mistress, I hate to be the one to bring it up, but someone has to..."
"Bring what up?" she asked, staring straight ahead at the faeries skimming the surface of the waters, leaving ripples in their wake.
"Aurora's birthday is in three days."
"Don't you think I know that?" she snapped, standing and pacing back and forth along the shore. "I've tried everything I can think of, but the curse is too powerful to be broken. Perhaps Stefan had the right of it, burning all the spinning wheels and banishing the child to a dismal life with those three nitwits. Perhaps the only way to save her will be to keep her here, where we can keep a close watch on her."
"What do you propose we do, Mistress? Lash her to a tree from dawn to dusk, like Odysseus to his ship's mast?"
"What are you blathering on about?"
"You're the one who filled my head with Latin and Greek, so I could teach Aurora her letters," Diaval reminded her.
"Something I now find myself regretting practically daily."
"Odysseus must have had some raven blood," Diaval said absently. "He was clever enough."
"Remind me why I stopped that human from bashing your brains in again?"
"Because for all you try to hide it, you've a kind and giving nature, and a heart that wants justice."
She gave him a sharp look, as if he had dealt her the most crushing insult imaginable, and he was certain any second he'd either be rewarded with being changed into a mealworm, or blistering his ears with a string of furious curses.
However, in lieu of either, she ceased her pacing and lapsed into silence. Sitting on the moss-covered stone, she looked up at him.
"What else can I do?"
"We're going to have to tell her the truth, Mistress."
"But Mistress, if we tell her about the curse and give her the choice to stay here, in the Moors, surely it will save her!"
"She'll hate me for it," Maleficent whispered.
"Isn't it better she hate you, yet live, than love you and fall victim to the curse?"
"Look about you, Diaval—look at the changes Aurora has brought to the Moors!" She gestured to the Fair Folk flitting from flower to flower and tree to tree, the gentle breeze, and the riot of wildflowers that had claimed nearly every spot where their roots could find soil. "How can we bear to lose her? She has healed this place. She—"
Maleficent cut herself off before she went so far as to admit that Aurora had made her believe there was more to the world than hatred and revenge. But Diaval already knew. He'd know it for so long, and had just been waiting for his mistress to see what he had always seen: that what Stefan began, Maleficent had continued doing, letting hatred corrupt her compassionate soul.
Sitting on the ground before her, one wrist clasped loosely across his knees, he looked up into her face, meeting her eyes.
"Then let me tell her, Mistress." He reached out a hand to touch the sleeve of her gown. Just for a moment. Just a gesture, even thought he knew that most days she could not bear to be touched by anyone, even Aurora. "She doesn't have to know you're the faery who cursed her! And if she's angry with anybody about keeping the truth from her all these years, it can be me. See? Problem solved."
She went very still, her face a mask. But after all the years together, he'd learnt how to read her intention in her eyes.
"You would do that for me?" she asked, and there was the tiniest tremble in her voice.
"Have I ever given cause for you to doubt my devotion?" Diaval softened the question with a smile.
"Of course not. " Maleficent reached down and stroked his hair, mindful of his feathers. "Ridiculous bird."
"Then it's settled—" Diaval scrambled to his feet. "I'll bring Aurora here, and tell her the tale along the way. She need never know, and there are no spinning wheels in the Moors. We can live—"
"Happily, ever after?" she said, incredulous, and then shook her head. "No. You're right. I... If anyone is to tell the beastie the truth, it should be me. No matter what happens."
"But, Mistress, you don't h—"
She changed him back with the merest twitch of her fingers. He flapped his wings and cawed desperately, but she merely smiled at him with such fondness he thought his heart would break.
"I've made up my mind, Diaval. I won't allow you to change it." She stood, wiping away a tear before it could fall.
Diaval cawed, circling overhead, as the wall of thorns parted and he could hear Aurora's voice. "Godmother? Diaval?"
"Go to the castle. Be my eyes, as well as my wings. If we are growing desperate, then so must the king."
He clicked his beak at her, flapping his wings so close to her face that she nearly raised her staff.
"You said anything I need," she reminded him., and this time it was a plea rather than a scold.
Diaval swooped around her head twice, unhappy, before rising above the Moors. As he caught the air with his wings, he heard Maleficent call to their fledge.
"Aurora? Come here. Sit. There's something I need to tell you."
Diaval circled the castle several times, before coming to rest in the window of the room that had once been Queen Leila's.
The furniture was covered in dust sheets, creating strangely-shaped ghosts in the gloom. No torches or braziers were lit, and all the tapestries and rugs were gone, leaving the stone floors and walls bare.
The plain wooden door to servant's corridor was open, and Diaval entered, wary. The few times he'd used them, they had been full of women and men in blue and gold livery, in constant motion. Dim light was supplied by the clerestory, more than enough for a raven to see by but barely enough for most humans. They made do, however, some of them practically raised in servant passages from the age of hatchlings. There were always lamps to be refilled, candles needing to be replaced, chamber pots to be emptied, clothing and linen to be washed, empty trenchers of food and goblets of wine or mead returned to the larder where they would be scrubbed with a handful of sand before being set back on the shelf to be filled again in an hour or a day, whenever the king or his nobles had need of them.
But over the years, the castle had lost so many of its inhabitants that today they echoed emptily, though Diaval could hear voices from other parts of the castle through the maze. Somewhere, a smith was hammering on their anvil—the ring of iron on iron so familiar to him now that he almost didn't notice it. He'd tried following the sound with his keen hearing, but it bounced off the stone walls of the castle, emerged from grates, and he'd never found whatever passage might lead to King Stefan's foundry.
Most of the nobles had taken up permanent residence in what had once been summer estates. Most of the tradespeople found no market for their wares, and moved on. Nearly all of the women in the kitchens and laundry could no longer put food in their children's bellies, and so their numbers too had dwindled, along with their once-cheerful voices raised in song or shouts or gossip.
There had been no balls, or banquets, or feasts in years. Not since Queen Leila had been laid to rest in her tomb below the abbey, topped with an uncanny likeness of her carved from marble, arms crossed over her breast as if she were asleep. Her parents Henry and Mary were similarly entombed, and as was the custom, a space had been marked out for Stefan so that one day he would be laid to rest alongside his wife.
Most humans were (quite sensibly, from a raven's point of view) returned to the ground to decay as nature intended. The idea of letting old and dusty bones to be sealed in marble tombs so they could be visited like sleeping guests was ridiculous to him. But a shiver ran down his raven spine as he realised that it wasn't only Stefan that the people of Perceforest expected to bury in this fashion, but—if they even still remembered the infant princess—Aurora as well.
King Stefan's castle was already a tomb, in every way that truly mattered. The corpse just hadn't stopped breathing and moving yet.
Voices were coming closer, and Diaval landed atop a wardrobe, listening.
"...all this time. He wants the whole room aired, fresh wood brought up for the fire. Everything ready, in less than a week, with no warning! And I don't know about you, but these old knees weren't made for all these stairs..."
A plump, greying matron was carrying a stack of fresh linen, taking each step as if it were torture, while a skinny girl perhaps Aurora's age or younger followed her, arms piled high with heavy velvets so she could barely see where to set her feet to keep from tumbling headlong down the narrow servant's staircase.
He hid until they passed, then cautiously followed.
"...even know she'll come at all, Mistress?"
"...always been a queer'un, even when he was one of..."
The voices became muffled, as a door was closed behind the gossiping servants.
Once they had come back down the stairs, Diaval flew upwards to find the wooden door they'd come through opened onto a familiar room.
The nursery had changed little, since he'd been here last. Except Aurora's cot had been moved to a corner, and before the windows where Queen Leila had sat, crying as if her heart would break, there was now a bed. It wasn't the queen's bed, with its enormous carved canopy and heavy, sound-deadening curtains. It was narrower, with lush green velvet bed hangings and pale curtains trimmed with fanciful embroidery of dragonflies done in gleaming gold hanging from the high ceiling.
He recognised the dark blue velvet counterpane trimmed with gold as the one the servant girl had been carrying. The windows were open, no doubt to air out the room. There wasn't a spec of dust, on any surface, sill, mantle, or chair, and the floors with their pattern of alternating blue and gold had been freshly polished. Even the child's hobby horse for which Aurora was far too old gleamed as if it had been carved and painted yesterday.
There was a child-sized dressing table, a doll resting on the embroidered cushion of the bench. The head was made of porcelain and had brightly painted blue eyes. The stiff dress was made from beautifully embroidered damask, and it would have been a little girl's pride and joy. It was nothing at all like the hand-made poppets made from twigs and scraps that Aurora had played with until they fell apart, and then put back together lovingly with whatever she could find.
Diaval clicked his beak and shook his head. Everything about this felt obscene and wrong. As if it were a mummer's play being performed for the benefit of an audience. Not where their Aurora belonged. She deserved to live in a real forest, among those who loved and cared for her. Not a stranger who had given her away not to save her, but to win against an enemy he had himself created through his cruelty.
The raven couldn't stop comparing this room with her bed under the eaves, in the loft of the woodcutter's cottage with the tree growing through it, with its crude child's renderings of leaves and vines and flowers painted on the plaster. No matter how mean and meagre that home seemed, when compared to the opulence that surrounded him, at least that child had always known love. She had never for a single day been truly alone.
For all their faults (and they were many), the pixies did love her as much as they were able. Thistlewit in particular had always been like a sister to her, happy to look at the girl's latest drawing or painting, and being surprisingly good at bee-keeping. Flittle had similarly doted on their charge, comforting her hurts with possets and tinctures and always, always, tiny blue butterflies. Even Knotgrass, with her prickly pride so like his mistress at times, cared in a gruff, domineering way. She believed with all her heart that the king and queen had entrusted her with the raising of their daughter as an honour—even if she groused about it as a terrible burden.
He leapt from the foot of the bed to the windowsill, and then caught the wind. Following the ever-present ring of hammer on anvil, he tried to see what, if anything, of war that he could report to his mistress.
It was nearly dawn when he returned to the Moors. He had slept in the laundry, fitfully if at all. It was clear preparations for something were taking place, but despite the heavy haze of smoke that hung in the air from the foundry, Diaval had still not discovered what they were. The king was paranoid and fearful, and kept no-one's counsel but his own. But listening at windows and in the rafters of the barracks, Diaval had heard of workmen roused from their beds at all hours, and the sounds of hammers and anvils never seemed to cease. The place stank of iron, yet where it was being stored was still a mystery to him.
What was clear, however, was that all the soldiers who had been deployed along the wall of thorns had been recalled. The barracks had been full almost to overflowing with frightened, quiet young men who had no idea what they had been put up against.
He dropped to the ground before Maleficent, who changed him, leaning forward eagerly to share her news.
"Aurora is coming here, to live in the Moors," she told him, and her entire demeanour had changed. She practically radiated joy.
"That's wonderful," Diaval was stunned.
"It was the child's own idea! I was shocked. But she's apparently been planning it for some time. She's going to tell those ridiculous imbeciles today, and then she is coming here, to be with us, where we can keep her safe. You were right, this is the answer."
"Not that I'm not understandably thrilled, cos I am. Nothing could make me happier than having Aurora here, with us. But Mistress, you haven't told me yet. How did she take it, the truth about the curse?"
"What does it matter? She has made the choice of her own free will. Isn't that enough? Now, what news of Stefan?"
"Only that all the soldiers have been recalled, and he expects you to come for him when the curse fails. Appears to be in terror of it, in fact."
"That is excellent news." She tapped a finger against her lips, eyes shining. "I have no intention of giving him anything. Not Aurora, not me. He can plot and plan all he likes, but we shall stay safe, here in the Moors, where he cannot reach us."
"But what's to stop her 'aunties' from telling her the whole truth when she marches up to them and announces her intention to leave them for her mysterious Faery Godmother and her devilishly handsome raven?"
"They can't object if they're mysteriously cast into a slumber from which they cannot be awakened," she pointed out almost gleefully.
"Aurora loves them too much. She wouldn't leave their sides, if she thought they were ill. Or worse, she might try to summon help from the nearest village. Who knows what might happen then?"
"I could make them disappear on a more... permanent basis."
He tilted his head, giving her what he hoped with a suitably disapproving glare.
"There are times when I wish I had never stopped that farmer's dogs," she growled, scowling at him with narrowed eyes. The transformation from man back to raven came as no real surprise. But Maleficent picking up her skirts and starting toward the barrier of thorns did.
"Well? Are you coming?" she called to him, and he croaked twice before flying ahead of her, aimed like an arrow toward the woodcutter's cottage.
However, when they arrived, Aurora was not in her room. Nor was she in the cottage itself. Peering through the round leaded panes of the kitchen window, Diaval saw the hapless pixies trying to make a cake. Unfortunately, they did not seem to quite grasp the concept of baking, instead adding handful after handful of flour until the batter was nearly solid, so they could try and shape it like clay.
Shaking his beak, shoulders drooping, Diaval took to the air again, until he caught a flash of movement on the other side of the cottage, by the stream that ran hard by. Aurora, much like her godmother, paced when she was nervous.
Maleficent had beaten him there, and was watching Aurora from a safe distance away, hidden in the shadow of an enormous oak tree. Diaval landed on a bare branch close to Maleficent as they watched the girl wrestle with how to best break the news to her 'aunts' that she was intending to leave them this very day.
Diaval croaked once, clicking his beak.
"Shh—I want to hear this," Maleficent whispered.
"... time to say goodbye. You've been very good to me, except the time you accidentally fed me spiders..."
Maleficent closed her eyes, as if in pain. They been lucky that Diaval had seen the sac of spider eggs and recognised it for what it was and rushed back to the Moors to tell his mistress what had happened before the venom had made the child ill.
When she opened them again, her eyes widened in alarm as a young human boy in velvet and linen came through the trees, startling Aurora, who tripped and fell on the slippery shore of the stream.
As the boy extended a hand to help her to her feet, Maleficent reacted alarmingly, and would have gone crashing through the underbrush, had Diaval not flapped his wings at her, hopping from foot to foot.
"How dare he touch her!" Maleficent whispered fiercely, her eyes flashed a worrisome green.
Diaval croaked at her, gesturing with his beak. To have a human voice now, when it would actually be useful!
Mistress, wait, he thought at her, very, very hard. Look at them. Look at her.
"Ugh. Look at him," she muttered. "Look at her! Aurora should know better than to talk to strangers."
Diaval tilted his head, looking her straight in the eye, as if to say Really?
But watching the two young humans blushing and stammering, Diaval grew frantic. He hopped off the branch and flapped his wings in his mistress' face instantly, until clearly at her limit with his pestering, she transformed him.
"Well?" he asked, and was met with a blank look. "That boy's the answer!"
Maleficent laughed as if he'd just told the most amusing joke. "No, Diaval."
"Yes!" he insisted. "True love's kiss, remember? It can break the spell."
"True love's kiss?" she repeated, voice dripping with scorn. "Have you not worked it out yet?"
He was completely baffled.
She turned her face away from him. "I cursed her that way because there is no such thing."
Diaval's breath caught in his throat. Of all the answers she could have given, that was the one he understood the least. Of all he'd seen and learnt over the past seventeen years—about humans, about faeries, about himself and his mistress—the one thing he had always seen was the heart's infinite capacity for love. Even when things were at their worst, people still loved. Mothers loved their kits and hatchlings. Pretty boys and pretty girls were always falling in love, and just because something may not have been made to last didn't mean it had not been made true.
Then the late queen's words from so many years ago came back to him, as clear as if she were standing next to him now. You made love to her, and then betrayed her. It was no wonder Maleficent didn't believe true love existed, if Stefan was her only experience of love. A love that had been calculated, and then thrown away when it no longer had value for him.
But just because Stefan had wronged his mistress didn't mean Diaval believed such a thing. And he refused to just give up. He couldn't.
"Well, that might be how you feel, but what about Aurora?" Diaval pleaded with her. It was plain how much the child meant to her. How could she not put aside her hate and try? "That boy could be her only chance. It's her fate, anyway."
He watched the emotions play across his mistress' face in the stillness, what little hope he had dying as she raised her hand to transform him.
"Go ahead," he said bitterly, "turn me into whatever you want. A bird, a worm. I don't care anymore."
He stalked off in the boy's wake, waiting to feel the transformation grip him with each step. When it never came, he stopped and looked back at where she stood. But her eyes were fixed on the cottage, not following him at all.
It turned out that it was much more difficult catching up to a young man on horseback when one had a man's legs instead of a raven's wings.
Diaval was nearly exhausted by the time he admitted there was no way he could possibly reach Phillip on foot, and reluctantly turned around. Perhaps if he were return to his mistress and humbly beg her forgiveness, that she might grant him wings once more, for Aurora's sake.
He retraced his steps, expecting to find her still standing on the bank of the stream that ran alongside the cottage, exactly where he'd left her. But she was nowhere to be found.
Acutely aware that he was still in the shape of a man, he crept to the cottage kitchen window, and peered inside.
The pixies were sat around the table, talking quietly to Aurora whose face went from confused to stricken as they spoke. Diaval couldn't hear what they were saying, but he didn't need to. Watching Aurora as she pushed away from the table and ran out the door, Diaval's heart sank.
"When I most need wings—" he muttered, trying to remember the fastest way to the Moors from the cottage, hoping to outrun his fledge. But she was a spry fledgling, and he was a very tired old raven currently with legs rather than wings. With dismay, he saw the girl disappear through the gap in the wall of thorns before it closed up behind her.
The wall of thorns wasn't enchanted to let him pass; only Aurora. Diaval skittered to a halt before he accidentally impaled himself, and had to rest his hands on his thighs, sucking in great gulps of air.
"Mistress!" he shouted, trying to find a break in the massive forest of briars. But it had been raised to keep men out, and he was still quite frustratingly man-shaped. "Mistress, I'm sorry! Truly I am, please just... let me in!"
The forest was eerily silent. A flock of sparrows, spooked by something, took flight to the west, where dark clouds had begin to gather.
"Maleficent!" he shouted, the shape of her name feeling strange in his mouth, tasting like copper. "Maleficent, please!"
His raspy human voice was beginning to sound more like his raven's croak.
He dropped to his knees, hands on the earth, frustration gnawing at him until he felt the familiar touch of magic and the change to his true form overcame him.
Throwing himself into the air, he flew as fast and as true as he could, but it was too late. His keen raven's eyes found them just as Aurora was backing away from his mistress, sobbing.
"You're the evil that's in the world. It's you!"
Aurora turned and half-blinded by tears, ran from her. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Diaval circled overhead, cawing.
"Find the boy!" Maleficent thundered, and Diaval didn't even stop to land, but rose in the air above the meadow.
As a raven, the search at least went much faster, but it was almost nightfall by the time he located the human. Diaval had began at the edge of the forest closest to the cottage in wide, and searched sweeping circles until he spotted smoke curling upwards through the trees. landing heavily on the bough of an oak tree, Diaval saw the white flank of the boy's charger as he led it to a stream to drink next to where he had made camp. Blessedly, he was still midway between the woodcutter's cottage and the main road, still several hours from the castle. His cloak was spread out on the forest floor, and he was roasting a small rabbit on a spit.
"Well, Sampson, what do you think?" the boy said as he removed the horse's saddle, and draped it over a fallen tree. "Pretty girl, or prettiest girl?"
The horse ducked his head, then slammed it into the young man's shoulder, nearly bowling him over. But instead of responding with anger, the boy just laughed and draped the reins loosely over a branch.
"Hey! No carrots for you, if you're going to behave that way." Digging through the saddlebags, he laid them at the foot of his cloak, using them as a pillow as he gazed up at the darkening sky.
"Prettiest girl, definitely."
Had Diaval still been in man-shape, he'd have rolled his eyes. But at least the boy seemed well and truly smitten. All the better, for curse-breaking. Taking to the air once more, he made it back to the Moors before moonrise.
Diaval stumbled to the ground at his mistress' feet, having been gripped by the change almost before he had reached her.
"He's camped less than a mile from the cottage," he got out between gasping breaths.
"Good." She turned to the will-o'-the-wisps that had gathered at the banks of the river. "Have him pixie-led. The boy does not leave the forest."
The glowing faeries exchanged nervous glances, and Diaval worried his mistress might smite them all down with bolts of green lightning. However, instead she knelt at the river's edge, and raised her face to the skies.
"Creatures of the Moors! I know that as your Queen, I could order you to do my bidding. But for Aurora's sake, I am asking for your help. Do this for her, if you will not do it for me."
More faeries gathered, until Diaval was certain every single faery creature in the entire Moors was listening.
"Please," Maleficent said. Her voice was so soft, but still carried. Diaval could not remember her ever begging. Not once, in seventeen years.
As one, the faeries scattered, and Maleficent bowed her head, her shoulders slumping.
Diaval reached out a hand and laid it on her shoulder. After seventeen years of keeping his vow to never touch her unless she invited it, he'd done so twice, now. But her pain was so great, and he wanted to much to lift even the slightest bit of it away, if only to place his own shoulders, if he could. She looked up at him, her face a mask of despair.
"Mistress?" he said softly, and she shook him off, leaning heavily on her staff to get to her feet.
"Take me to him."
Aurora's bed in the woodcutter's cottage hadn't been slept in, and one of the two greying horses that had pulled the cart that brought them there after her christening was gone from the stable. The idiot pixies had slept peacefully in their bed, assuming Aurora would be there in the morning—just like always.
When they realised they'd lost their charge on the very day of her birthday, they had resumed their true shapes and fled the cottage to try and find her before Good King Stefan had them clapped in burning irons and tossed into the deepest, darkest corner of the castle dungeons.
But at least the glowing will-o'-the-wisps and fireflies of the Moors had done an excellent job. Phillip had been led in circles all day, and was barely a quarter mile from where he'd started when Maleficent and Diaval found him. He was rumpled, and tired looking, and Diaval wondered if he'd got any sleep the night before at all.
Then again, neither had he nor Maleficent, who had insisted they leave the Moors immediately.
He had been in his own shape all night and most of the morning, as they'd walked from the heart of the Moors to the edge of the forest where the boy had made camp. He'd croaked and clicked at her, but she'd stubbornly refused to change him. He knew she blamed herself, and likely believed he blamed her as well, and thought she was sparing herself a tongue-lashing from an impertinent, insubordinate servant.
But the reality could not have been further from the truth. Diaval regretted his angry words from the day before, and blamed himself for leaving when she and Aurora clearly needed him the most. If he had been there, perhaps things might have been different. If he had not stormed off, perhaps his mistress might have been made to see reason. They could have intervened before the pixies told her their one-sided version of events that cast his mistress in the worst possible light.
If he'd even been able to get to Aurora before she reached the Moors, he might have been able to explain, at least give her a different target for her anger. If she had stayed in her own bed, surrounded by her own things, perhaps she might have calmed down and listened to reason and come back with them to the Moors. Or at the very least, stay where it was safe until the day after her birthday, to try and escape her fate.
But much as he would like to believe he could have made a difference, he was beginning to wonder if all of them weren't caught up in Maleficent's curse—and doomed to fail.
Such dark imaginings weren't going to do his mistress or their fledge any good. But Diaval was wing-sore, and hungry, and worried sick about the two people in this world he cared for the most. Maleficent's stubborn refusal to actually talk to him only added to his misery. But he dreaded what ugly words she might utter in her own miasma of guilt and fear.
Perhaps silence was the better option, after all.
As soon as Phillip's horse came into view, Maleficent stepped out of the shadow of a massive oak, starling the boy, who drew his sword halfway from its sheath.
"I'm looking for a girl," he said, clearly confused.
"Of course you are." Maleficent blew a cloud of gold in his direction, and the boy slumped over in the saddle, lost to the world around him in peaceful enchanted sleep.
"I need a horse," she said, looking up at Diaval.
Anything you need, he'd said. landing on the ground at her feet, he felt the magic swirl around him and he stamped his feet and shook his head, trying to adjust to his new height and heft. The other horse shied, and nearly dumped the human boy to the forest floor, but Maleficent reached out with both her hand and her magic, and stroked the horse's mane.
"That is quite enough of that," she said sternly, and then approached Diaval-the-horse. Holding out her staff, she reshaped it until she held a leather bridle in her hand, a golden bit jangling.
He lowered his head, and opened his beak-like mouth, allowing her to put the bit over his tongue as she settled the bridle over his head. It fitted him like a second skin, and caused him no discomfort at all. Grasping handfuls of his feathered mane, Maleficent pulled herself up so she sat astride his back and she gripped his sides with her legs. The boy and horse in tow, Maleficent turned his head toward King Stefan's castle and they took off at a gallop.
"Come on, Diaval," Maleficent chanted as they raced toward Stefan's castle.
Despite the newness of his shape, and the grip of exhaustion, he maintained a breakneck speed and over cart-tracks and cow paths, open fields, and finally the wide hard-packed earth of the king's road. But after ten, fifteen, and then twenty miles both Diaval and Phillip's horse were unable to keep up the same pace they had at the onset. Foam flecked his lips, and his shiny black beak.
But ever since midsummer the days had been growing shorter, and soon they were racing against the sunset.
Diaval didn't feel the curse take hold, but Maleficent must have. She pulled tight on the reins, and Diaval reared on his hind legs as their forward progress came to an abrupt halt. They were so close to the castle that Diaval could smell the oily smoke from the braziers that lined the road, and beneath that the green algae that covered the surface of the moat.
The sunset had won.
"It's done." Maleficent buried her face in the feathers of Diaval's mane.
She slipped from his back, and landed on her hands and knees, the dust of the road showing dark spatters from where her tears had fallen.
The tasteless, odourless black smoke of his transformation faded, and Diaval dropped to his knees before her. She looked up at him, and he barely recognise her. He had never seen her so defeated, not even when he'd brought her the news of Aurora's birth.
"We're too late."
"There's still time," he insisted. "Don't give up all hope."
"I gave up hope so long ago, I no longer remember what it tastes like."
"Don't say that, Mistress."
She picked up the oak twig that had been her staff fallen after its transformation, and with a shower of gold, it grew back to its proper size. Leaning a little more heavily on it than she had in a very long time, she walked forward. Grasping the reins of the sleeping human's horse, he followed in her wake. As always.
The difference between the castle on the day of Aurora's christening, when all of Perceforest had come to celebrate, and now was more extreme than night and day. It seemed the difference between life and death.
No gold and blue banners hung from the walls. No-one crowded the narrow passages between stone ramparts, dressed in their best clothes. The cobblestone streets were nearly empty, every window and door of the castle from the heavy gates of the outer bailey to the windows of highest tower locked tight.
Except one. The drawbridge was down and gate on the southern wall that faced the Moors was open.
Wrought iron braziers stood on either side of the portcullis, where the guardsmen should have been stationed. Had been stationed, for as long as Diaval had been coming to that place, to be his mistress' eyes and wings.
Enormous spikes had been mounted on either side of the gate. In the flickering light from the torches and braziers, Diaval could see they were just the beginning of Stefan's newly-installed defences. Invisible from their vantage point until now, looking up similar contrivances on the merlon of every one of the castle's battlements, giving the entire castle the silhouette of a bramble hedge in the moonlight.
"Well. I suppose now we know what the foundry was for," he muttered, annoyed that even with all his spying, he'd never once discovered the true purpose of the army of smiths and ironworkers recruited to the castle.
Leaving the human boy's horse on the other side of the drawbridge, Maleficent gestured and the boy was lifted into the air, his cloak floating after him as if he were swimming through the air. Diaval grasped a handful of his sleeve, and keep hold of him as he followed his mistress.
"They pulled the guards. He's waiting for you in there," Diaval felt foolish pointing out the obvious. "If we go inside those walls, we'll never come out alive."
"Then don't come," Maleficent said, her tears having dried, but her voice still flat and empty. "It's not your fight."
She walked away from him and toward her almost certain death, the young man's body trailing behind her.
"Huh. Well, thank you very much," he said with a rasp in his voice, deeply hurt. Had they not raised the fledgling together? Had he never once left his mistress' side, done what she asked, allowed her to jerk him back and forth between his true shape and man, dog, and now horse, without complaint?
Without too much complaint, anyway?
"I need you, Diaval," he intoned dramatically in a fair imitation of her dulcet tones, annoyed. "I can't do this without you, Diaval."
Diaval strode after her, scowling, his spirits only the tiniest bit lifted when her irked "I can hear you," floated back to him on the night air. They crossed the heavy drawbridge, and entered the keep through the door the king had so generously left unguarded.
Once inside the castle, Diaval could see why.
While the wall of thorns had kept the Moors safe all these years, Stefan had been busy building his own forest. Enormous spires identical to the ones on either side of the portcullis had been mounted on wooden horses and chained in place, creating an impassable walls of deadly cast-iron thorns. Spikes as long as a man's arm, and sharp as a raven's beak filled the hall, leaving almost no space to squeeze through them.
Maleficent reached out with a hand, and the closest metal thorn grew red and angry, and Diaval could feel the heat from where he stood behind her. He moved in front of her, thinking to put himself between her and the burning cold iron, but she laid a hand on his arm, shaking her head.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward with purpose.
"Mistress," Diaval said, but she ignored him, picking her way through the maze as carefully as she could while Diaval struggled to trace her path while wrangling an floating unconscious nobleman's fledge.
By the time they exited the maze, Maleficent's myriad burns were already beginning to heal, and Diaval was nearly sick to his stomach from the smell of roasting meat. A cold, clammy sweat had broken out all over his naked, featherless skin beneath his human attire, and his heart was pounding so loudly in his ears he was sure the castle guard could hear it and would be upon them any second.
But they followed the servants all the way to the floor where the royal chambers were located, never encountering a single guard until just outside the entrance to the nursery.
At the sight of an upside-down sleeping noble's son floating five feet off the ground, the guard paused, clearly confused and distracted. Diaval would have gladly taken care of it, but Maleficent seemed to rather enjoy employing her staff as a club and knocking him unconscious.
"You enjoyed that a little too much," Diaval whispered as they skirted around the flattened guard, Phillip being pulled along after them by the back of his jerkin.
"Did I?" she asked, not sounding even a little bit contrite. "Which one?" she asked, jerking her horns at the row of doors.
Diaval pointed to the nursery doors which had been freshly polished, the scent of beeswax and citrus still hanging in the air.
They pressed themselves close to the wall as Maleficent unceremoniously dropped Phillip to the floor directly in front of the double doors with a clatter and distinctly awake moan.
Diaval gave her a quelling look, but she just shrugged.
Thankfully, the doors opened from the inside just as the boy was getting to his feet.
"I'm embarrassed to say I don't know where I am," Phillip admitted, brushing himself off.
"At least he's polite," Diaval whispered, and his eyes went wide when his mistress clamped a hand over his mouth, giving him a withering look. Before he could even register the warmth of her hand on his face, she withdrew it.
They shamelessly eavesdropped while the faeries questioned him, and Diaval perked up when it was revealed not only was the lovesick swain pleased as punch to be there, but an actual prince besides.
"Do you want to kiss her?" they heard Thistlewit ask, and peering around the doors, Diaval was quite encouraged to see the boy looking down at the sleeping Aurora tenderly, clearly besotted.
Diaval raised an eyebrow, as if to say See? but Maleficent remained unconvinced. They crept unnoticed into the bedchamber, keeping to the shadows along the wall until they reached one of the enormous dressing screens that hid them completely from view. But they needn't have bothered. There were no guards, and the idiot pixies were so consumed with trying to convince Phillip to embrace his feelings and throw the codes of chivalry and courtly love to the four winds to notice.
It was excruciating, waiting for him to stop balking and questioning the rightness of pressing one's affection on someone they had only just met, and who was unconscious besides. Even Maleficent rolled her eyes as the three pixies chorused Kiss her!
Time seemed to stop as, through the golden screen, they watched the boy slowly bend his head to place a chaste kiss—which he was lingering over just a little too long for Diaval's comfort—on Aurora's lips.
Even the pixies held their collective breath as he rose, and they waited to see if the girl would stir. If Phillip's heart was true (and surely it was; he was a prince after all), then the horrible curse would be broken. The princess would wake, joyful and unharmed, as if nothing at all had happened. And all would be well at last.
But Aurora's chest continued to rise and fall gently as she slept, without a single flicker of her eyelids or warm blush rising to her pale cheeks.
The faeries grasped Phillip by his cloak, berating him for not being able to properly deliver to a young lady the kiss of true love, and dragging him out the door. Diaval could hear their voices as they flitted off to find some other handsome young person to kiss their charge awake.
As the doors creaked shut behind them, Maleficent bowed her head.
"I told you," she said, sounding completely defeated.
They came out from behind the screen, and Diaval's eyes burned with tears a raven wouldn't have been able to shed at the sight of Aurora lying atop the blue and gold counterpane, bathed in moonlight. He couldn't bear to take another step, his stomach twisting at the memory of queen's effigy carved from cold white marble. So he concentrated on Aurora's shallow breaths instead, watching their fledgling's chest rise and fall as she slept to prove she still lived.
Maleficent walked to Aurora's bedside as grim as the condemned might to the gallows.
"I will not ask your forgiveness," she said softly, "because what I have done to you is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge."
Diaval had never once thought to hear her admit such a thing aloud. His throat felt as if it was closing up, and he would never be able to breathe again as he watched his beautiful, prickly, proud mistress bare her battered soul to their sleeping fledge.
"Sweet Aurora, you stole what was left of my heart," she said as the tears gathering in her eyes, "and now I have lost you forever."
At the first tear that fell, unnoticed, from Maleficent's eyes, Diaval tried to will his legs to move, but he was rooted to the spot like one of Balthazar's brethren. This was between a mother and a daughter, and he had no right to insert himself into the moment.
"I swear, no harm will come to you as long as I live," she promised. "And not a day shall pass that I don't miss your smile."
Diaval could barely see through the tears that blurred his vision as she bent to press her lips to Aurora's brow. He bowed his head, finding it near impossible to believe that after coming so far, they had failed their fledge so completely.
He nearly fell to his knees when he heard Aurora's voice. "Hello, Godmother."
"Hello, Beastie," Maleficent said, smiling through her tears.
"No truer love, hmmm?" Diaval breathed as Aurora gave his mistress a blinding smile.
"Insolent raven," Maleficent said, not even looking at him, choking on a laugh, and that was what finally propelled him across the marble floor to her side.
"Diaval!" Aurora reached for his hands, and he fell to one knee, pressing the backs of them to his forehead before kissing each of them. Twice.
"Did you really think we'd miss your birthday?" he said as he raised his head, and Aurora's laugh was the sweetest sound in the entire world.
"Pull yourself together," Maleficent admonished him as he got to his feet and swiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
"Can we go home now?" Aurora asked, sitting up, and swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
"Of course, Beastie."
"About that," Diaval said, gesturing to where her torn sleeve had been singed. "We might want to take a different route this time."
The only other exit Diaval could think of was the great hall where the king and queen's thrones stood. By necessity, it had its own path meant to allow all the people of the kingdom into the throne room, without actually giving them complete access to the castle and keep. Maleficent changed him back to a raven, and charged him with scouting ahead, to make sure no guards were lying in wait along the route.
He was so focused on make sure the hall was empty, he didn't see the net suspended in the shadows high above the marble floor until the chain was released. Maleficent cried out in pain as the heavy iron burned everywhere it touched, and forced her to the marble floor. Aurora immediately ran to the edge of the heavy net and tried to lift it, but the soldiers who flooded the room pulled Aurora away.
Diaval dove at them, using talon and beak as best he could to force them to release her. But they held fast to the struggling, screaming princess. He beat his wings frantically, screaming and clawing at the men holding her.
When that failed, he swooped at the swordsmen, trying to drive them away from the net where they thrust their swords through the gaps in the iron net, trying to stab his poor mistress. The smell of burning flesh made even his raven's stomach roil, and he screamed and screamed as new burns appeared on her pale skin every time she moved.
"Into a dragon," she managed before succumbing to the pain, and Diaval fell into the shift gladly.
He roared at the soldiers, fire spewing from his throat to send them screaming from the net, each powerful beat of his dragon wings sending the iron chandeliers swinging wildly and knocking more guards off their feet. Their raised shields were nothing to his flames, and he drove them back until he could bend his head and grip the net in his beak.
Just as she had saved him that day in the wheat field, Diaval lifted the heavy iron net that had pinned her to the marble floor, and flung it away from her as hard as he could in the direction of the soldiers.
The heavy carved wood scenes of knights of old caught fire first thanks to the layer after layer of polish going back decades. Next were the standards that hung from the rafters bearing the king's crest—the rampant dragon on a snow white field. Soon the flames began to lick at the walls, the floor—any surface that could and would burn.
In the firelight, he could see his mistress as she rolled to her feet, and tried to stagger toward their terrified fledge.
"Run, Aurora!" Maleficent commanded as Diaval slammed his heavy tail into the walls, and chunks of masonry worked their way free and began falling like chessmen.
Once their precious girl had disappeared from the burning hall, Diaval could concentrate on keeping the soldiers and their iron pikes and swords from his mistress as best he could.
But the soldiers were undaunted, slinging iron chains around his powerful new body, clamping his jaws shut as they encircled them. With their shields raised and closing in, Diaval felt a spike of fear. Not for himself, but for his mistress and fledge. If he could not keep them safe, then it did not matter what shape he died in.
No matter how many times he slammed himself against the burning walls of the hall, more chains were thrown over him, until they finally succeeded in binding his feet and sending him crashing to the cracked marble floor. From there, Diaval continued to struggle as Stefan in a heavy suit of plate armour, advanced mercilessly on his wounded mistress, a long length of iron chain dangling from his hands.
Diaval thrashed and screamed as Stefan used the chain like a whip to smash Maleficent against the wall of shields. Grunting with pain, she dropped to the floor, her ragged cloak slipping to reveal the stumps of her shorn wings, covered in delicate pin feathers the exact shade of autumn-brown as her hair.
Diaval would have risen up and roasted Stefan like a chestnut, if it hadn't been for the chains held taut by dozens of soldiers. What use was magic, if she could not save herself? What use was he, if even a dragon's wings were powerless against one mad human king?
"How does it feel to be a faery creature without wings, in a world where you don't belong?" Stefan snarled, wrapping the chains around her and laughing at the sizzling of her flesh beneath the weight of the iron.
With a growl, he flung Maleficent across the room, where she landed in a heap before the thrones. Once she had stood in that exact spot and faced her abuser for the first time since he had violated her, using her unbridled rage to forge a curse so strong no power in the world except love could break it. But now she gasped in pain and struggled to remain conscious as she scrambled backwards up the steps, away from the first man she had ever loved who had drawn his sword to end her life.
Diaval's head slammed against the marble floor over and over, raising clouds of dust, and the chains that bound him were pulled tighter by the screaming men. Their swords slashed at his hide, the chains tightening to the point of agony, but he refused to give up.
Then there was a hush, and a blinding flash of light.
The chains pinning Diaval to the floor slackened just enough that he could see Maleficent rise in the air on heartbreakingly beautiful wings that spanned the entire dais, her primaries nearly brushing the columns on either side.
Diaval had never seen anything so beautiful in all his life.
It was the last piece of the puzzle he'd begun assembling one blustery early winter morning when he'd watched a faery make her way from the Moorlands to the shattered ruins of a human castle that had been abandoned for hundreds of years, at the edge of his known world. He finally saw her whole, which gave him the context for everything she had lost.
She hadn't just lost a piece of herself. Her soul lost the skies. Her heart lost the joy of riding the thermals, the speed and the strength and the perfect balance that allowed her to never set foot on the earth ever again if she hadn't wanted to.
He understood, and his heart leapt in his enormous dragon's chest to see the Maleficent the world had been cruelly denied by Stefan's ambition.
"Kill her!" Stefan screamed, but her powerful wings shielded her from the spears and pikes thrown at her, and she remained out of range of sword or chain. With one powerful burst of speed, she used the talon on her pinion to sever the chain that held the iron chandelier directly above Diaval aloft. As it crashed to the ground, the men holding his chains scattered.
He was free.
Diaval rose on his legs, screaming, and then let loose a torrent of dragonfire that sent men screaming to their deaths, and knocked Stefan to the floor. It was then he saw Aurora in the musicians gallery above the throne room. He positioned himself in front of her, and sent another stream of flames down to scatter the soldiers, and warp their crude iron shields.
"No!" Aurora shrieked, as her father snared his mistress' ankle, wrapping it tightly and trying to hold her in place so that they could take aim and fire their crossbow quarrels and throw their iron-tipped spears. With a snarl of rage, Maleficent flapped her wings harder, dragging Stefan across the floor until she closed her wings around her and, spinning, used her horns and talons to crashed through the giant stained-glass window above the dais.
Diaval saw the king still dangling from the chain, and opened his dragon's maw to scream. At the loss of their commander, there was nothing holding the soldiers to their duty, and they began fleeing the burning hall. Maleficent's cloak was burning, but her staff was still tangled in the net. He tugged it free with one talon, and very carefully picked it up in his mouth, the way a filthy mangy hound would a stick. But he would not let it burn. Diaval stretched his long neck so he could rest his chin on the low stone wall of the gallery. In awe, Aurora patted his nose.
He raised one wing, and turned so she could scramble onto his back. Once he was sure she had a nice, tight hold of the hackle of black feathers behind his horns, he raised his wings and leapt through the gaping hole Maleficent had made. Of course, being rather a bit larger than she was, he made the hole more than a bit larger on the way out. But Aurora had buried her face in his neck, knees clamped tight around his neck, and whispered, "Please, Diaval. Please find her."
He circled the castle once, and then saw them. Stefan and Maleficent were intertwined, falling from the highest tower. Before his heart could skip a beat, she had righted herself and opened her glorious wings. She caught the updraft, and Diaval purposely ducked around to land next to the open drawbridge, so Aurora's last sight of her father wasn't her godmother standing over his lifeless body.
As he landed, the pixies—a very confused Phillip in their wake—stumbled out to greet them. While the pixies shrieked in terror, Aurora waved to them.
"It's alright! It's just Diaval!"
Phillip stopped short, looking up, up, all the way up to where she grinned down at him.
"Just Diaval," he said, eyes so wide they looked as if they might drop to the cobbles like knucklebones at any second.
Diaval graciously lowered his head, resting his chin on the grass and Aurora clambered down. With great care, Diaval dropped his mistress' staff to the grass.
"Phillip! How are you here?"
"Aurora!" He rushed to her and then clasped her hands. "I have absolutely no idea."
Diaval snorted, which as he was still a dragon, was accompanied by two very small fireballs and a gout of smoke that sent the pixies screaming once more.
"Aunties," Aurora beamed at them, beautiful and cheerful as ever despite being completely dishevelled, stinking of smoke, and having lost one of her shoes since they'd fled her royal bedchamber. "You seem much smaller than I remember."
"Beastie!" Maleficent called, and Aurora looked up to see his mistress hovering in mid-air, her extraordinary wings outstretched.
"Godmother!" she exclaimed.
"Godmother?" the pixies repeated in shock.
"Oh God," Phillip said very, very softly as Maleficent landed and Aurora rushed into her arms. Maleficent rested her cheek against the top of Aurora's head, and closed her wings around them.
Diaval couldn't heal his mistress with a single touch. Not the way that she could a broken branch, or an injured faery. But perhaps Aurora could. Was. Had done.
Diaval, feeling left out, was about to object when motes of gold and swirls of black smoke danced before his eyes and he felt the change begin. He picked up Maleficent's staff, brushing off his coat as he walked up to them.
"Ah... Mistress? I believe you dropped this," he said, holding up the staff. With a delighted laugh, she opened her wings and took the staff, and to his shock, closed her wings around both him and Aurora, who gripped him hard around his waist as if she meant to squeeze the stuffing out of him.
"Thank you," Maleficent said, and Diaval knew she wasn't just thanking him for returning her staff.
When she opened her wings again, he took a respectful step back until he was standing next to Phillip.
"Diaval," he introduced himself cheerfully. He clapped the boy on the shoulder hard enough that the young prince stumbled a half-step forward, before recovering his balance. "Now then, about this habit you have of taking advantage of sweet, innocent fledglings while they sleep..."
After Aurora's coronation, there had been feasting until the dawn. Maleficent had put on a gown of deepest brown the exact shade of the darkest feathers of her wings, and changed his scarecrow's coat into black velvet with leather decoration that curved from below his right ear across his back and curving over his left shoulder, cleverly mimicking the silhouette of a raven in fight.
Maleficent had even let her long hair hand loose down her back, putting aside her crown for a bit of shiny wire wrapped around a bird's beak, tipped with beautifully worked copper.
Aurora had been shocked when her godmother said it was a raven skull, her eyes flying to Diaval, who only laughed. His own ring was fashioned from a magpie skull, a sort of memento mori.
"But aren't magpies was from the same family as ravens?"
"That's exactly why," he'd said twisting the ring around his finger. "Better that bird be honoured and remembered, than its skull crunched into dust under some farmer's boot."
"So you wont mind me using your skull someday, to adorn a fetching robe or hat?" Maleficent had asked, sweetly. But he had just grinned at her.
"I'd be offended if you didn't, Mistress. That way, I could be with you, always."
Aurora and Phillip had exchanged looks, but Aurora was the first to smile and then laugh.
"I never knew you were so sentimental, pretty bird," she said, reaching out to touch the beads on the shoulder of his coat.
"Brimming with sentiment, I am. See?" He dug deep into the pocket of his coat, and pulled out the bit of wood in the rough shape of a bird, features worn smooth by his fingers over the years.
Maleficent had raised a brow as Aurora squealed in delight and then embarrassment, bemoaning her lack of talent when it came to whittling.
"What other little treasures have you been collecting?" his mistress asked, but he just gave her a lopsided grin.
"That's a very personal question to ask a raven," he said loftily. But her eyes remained bright with curiosity, following his every move all through the feasting.
Afterwards, Diaval had asked her to exchange his finery for his comfortable and familiar scarecrow's coat. He was ill at ease with fancy, constricting velvets no matter how prettily his mistress embellished them. But with Aurora installed as queen twice over, he supposed he would have to get used to them, as she brokered a lasting peace between the Moors and the human kingdoms.
Aurora had been fascinated by her godmother's pointed ears and cooed at finally seeing her unbound hair. It was as if she had never truly seen her godmother before, and it was as near the truth as could be. Like Diaval, she was completely and utterly transfixed by her wings that did, indeed, drag behind her as she walked.
And who could blame them, either of them? Diaval couldn't stop staring at them. They weren't the iridescent glossy black of a raven's, but in shades of grey, cream and rich brown that would give her complete camouflage in the forests. Her sleek primaries were as long as a man's arm. She had a talon-like claw at the pinion joint of each wing, which she decorated with bits of found treasure the same way she fashioned the rings she wore on her fingers.
From the first second he'd seen her, he hadn't really seen all of her. But now that she was whole at last, he couldn't tear her eyes away. He knew from how she had mourned them that they must have been amazing, but it was more than that. She held herself completely differently. Before, she had stood as if she had been so tightly strung she might have snapped. Now, it was as if everything had been loosened, and she could finally breathe.
He had never seen her as beautiful as she was when she allowed her powerful wings to lift her into the air, and glide and swoop on the updrafts and thermals, giddy as a young fledge, showing off.
Diaval struggled to keep up with her, but found it pleasantly exhausting. As dawn had washed over the Moors, painting it gold, and pink, and purple, he took a moment and flew to the rowan tree, Aurora's golden crown reminding him of his treasures.
In fact, he was so busy digging his long, pointed beak into the hollow to retrieve his much-abused leather pocket of treasure that he didn't hear the sound of her wings as Maleficent approached until it was too late.
When she landed on the branch, he cawed and crowed and croaked.
"This is my tree," she said, clicking her fingers.
Keeping his balance as he went from wings to fingers and talons to toes was tricky, but he managed it. Barely.
"I didn't see your name on it," he grumbled, stuffing the pouch into the open neck of his shirt.
"Well, I haven't been here in some time," she admitted. "And anyway, your nest is in the blackthorn tree. So I was understandably surprised to find you here."
Diaval leaned back against the trunk and patted the thick branch she was perched on affectionately. "I like this tree. It's a good tree."
"As do I." Tucking her outstretched wings close, she manoeuvred herself so that she was sitting on the branch rather than perched, her oak-leaf coloured dress fluttering in the breeze. "In fact, when I was a child, this is where I made my nest."
"Really," Diaval said, swallowing hard. "I had no idea. You've excellent taste, Mistress."
She regarded him coolly, and arched a brow. "In some things, yes."
"So, were you looking for me, or just feeling homesick?"
"Perhaps a bit of both," she admitted. "I haven't slept in a tree in so long that I'm a little worried I might fall out in the middle of the night."
Diaval couldn't help his smile. "I sincerely doubt that, Mistress."
"Well, I am in no hurry to rebuild my nest here. We've bigger things to discuss."
"—Phillip," he helpfully supplied.
"—has gone with Aurora to retrieve her things from the cottage, in preparation to live in the Moors from now on."
"You trust him alone with her?" Diaval nearly fell off the branch he sat up so abruptly.
"Certainly not!" The look she gave him was almost comical. "Those idiot pixies are suitable chaperones for the moment. At least until I can manage to convince him it was lovely to meet him but it really is long past time he return home."
Diaval suspected the only reason she hadn't turned the young prince into a reptile or rodent was because Aurora would certainly notice and miss him. She suffered the boy's presence for Aurora's sake, but seeing the two simpering and making cow's eyes at one another was making four days seem an eternity.
"I dunno, Mistress." Diaval gave her a cheek grin. "They do say absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"Do they really? Well, as we've barely spent more than a fortnight apart in seventeen years, that does explain the two of us rather well, I think."
He gave her a dark look, which she blithely ignored. He supposed he should be glad that she hadn't changed him back into a raven. Or into a mealy worm. Or whatever other vile creature she decided to spring on him without a moment's notice or second thought.
(The dragon had definitely been an improvement over the wolf, though.)
"In any case, as you've some obviously limited, but potentially useful experience with humans in the Moors, I thought perhaps you might be willing to help me create a home for her, here. Something suitable that will keep the beastie warm and safe, when winter comes."
Diaval could barely contain his smile as she waited patiently for his response.
He inclined his head respectfully, the closest thing he could manage to a courtly bow while holding onto a tree limb for dear life using only the already aching muscles of his thighs. "Mistress, it would be the greatest honour of my life to build our fledge's first nest."
"When you put it that way it sounds..." she frowned, waving her hand in the air, "...birdie."
"In case you haven't noticed, Mistress, I'm a bird," he pointed out. "Regardless of which shape I'm in."
"Oh, I've noticed." She pushed off, flying a wide circle around the tree before coming back to hover before him, wings silhouetted against the setting sun. "When you've finished doing whatever it is you're doing, join me at the blackthorn tree."
She turned to go, and Diaval cleared his throat loudly.
"Ah, Mistress? Aren't you forgetting something?" He gestured to his still very human form.
"No." She tilted her head, and smiled. "No, I don't think so."
She swooped away, leaving him muttering and grumbling as he started the long, long climb down.
Maleficent paced, Diaval had learned long ago, when she was nervous. As such, she rarely paced. But Diaval understood her anxiety. After nearly losing Aurora because the truth had finally been laid completely bare, they were in a way staring over. And beginnings were difficult. One rarely had control over endings, but beginnings were another matter.
"Despite her fanciful ideas, Aurora can't sleep in a tree every night and thrive on a diet of nothing but black walnuts and berries. But if she is to be Queen of the Moors, she'll need a palace. Humans expect that sort of thing."
Thinking of that room in the palace where she had nearly slept her life away, Diaval shook his head. "Mistress, she already has a palace that she hates and would never set foot in again given half the chance."
Diaval very carefully stepped closer, disrupting her restless pacing, the only proven trick he'd learnt over the years to keep her from wearing a rut in the stones. However it was a move which, due to recent change in circumstances, had new levels of difficulty, given her wingspan. He'd only been knocked over twice so far, but they were not experiences he was keen to repeat. She had not lied when she said her wings were powerful and strong. If it weren't for her gift of healing, he was fairly sure he'd have more than a few broken ribs.
"Shouldn't her home in the Moors be someplace warm and comfortable, where she feels completely herself?"
Maleficent scowled, but then relented. "I suppose."
"The Moors themselves are her palace," he pointed out, "The throne you made is still a very excellent throne, and faeries of every size and shape can approach it with ease. Humans may expect all manner of things, but Aurora is a very special, unique human who was raised entirely by Moorfolk.
"And look at it this way—if she needs to add, I dunno, a ballroom or a great hall later, well—there's nothing stopping you from building her a proper palace. We just have to choose the right spot is all."
She frowned, narrowing her eyes at him. "You're annoyingly perceptive sometimes."
He nodded. "So I've been made aware."
A slow smile spread across her face. "I think that I may have an idea."
By the time Aurora and Phillip arrived with the cart full of Aurora's meagre belongings, Diaval was practically bursting out of his skin with excitement.
"Godfather, what has got you so excited?" Aurora asked,
"Godfather?" Diaval, Maleficent, and Phillip chorused as one as Diaval skidded to a halt, nearly falling over.
"Well, what else am I supposed to call you?" Aurora asked, all innocence.
"I... That is to say... Well." Diaval, for once, was at a complete loss for words.
"Oh do put the poor bird out of his misery, Aurora," Maleficent said with a dramatic sigh. "For now, Diaval shall do, will it not?"
"Yes, Diaval. Exactly." The raven could feel his traitorous human body flushing with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. "Now then, come and see, while we've still the light."
Aurora took Diaval's proffered arm, leaving Phillip to tag along behind them. As always, the young prince's head was constantly swivelling to take in the winged creatures of the Moors that covered the land, rose from its waters, and flew through the sweetly perfumed air.
The blackthorn tree next to the waterfall was in full bloom. Delicate white flowers crowded every branch and twig until they could hardly be seen. But since Aurora had seen it last, the intertwined trunks had grown fatter, roots pulling at the soil and new saplings had shot upwards to create new walls. It was nearly as wide as the woodcutter's cottage, now, and taller as the standing stones that marked the borders of the human world and the Moors.
"It's not a palace," Diaval began, more than a bit nervous. "And you may need one of those, in the days to come. Queen things, all that. But I—that is to say, we wanted to give you a home here in the Moors. A real home."
Rubbing his ribs which had so recently been introduced to his mistress' pointy elbow, Diaval led Aurora inside.
The hollow that had once been Maleficent's bower now extended much further and deeper into the hillside—with her original bower now serving as something of an antechamber. Enormous doors as tall as Balthazar, carved with twisting images of flowers and vines hung on wooden hinges, so that the they could be shut against the wind and rain, snow and wet if need be. Bur if Diaval knew Aurora, she would leave the open to the Moors every day, regardless of the weather being fine or foul.
The boulders had been rolled out their beds, and the hard-packed earth was covered in a fragrant carpet of sweet clover and thick, springy moss. Flagstones created markers, dividing the space into two areas, one to serve as a kitchen, the other a more formal meeting area. But the initial effect of the impossibly high space was like a human cathedral, except made of natural shapes and twisting trees instead of stark and cold geometric lines.
Instead of windows with tiny leaded panes, veins of the milky quartz from the pool of jewels filled in the spaces between the trees, letting in plenty of light, and roots had twisted themselves into legs for a trestle table of slate resting on a ladder of willow branches. It was long enough to seat half the Moors, if need be, and was set for a feast. Horn cups and bowls were neatly stacked, bone spoons and knives were intricately carved with tiny twisting vines, and the trenchers were piled high with all manner of food—ripe fruits, nuts, and every other delicacy that grew in either the Moors or Perceforest. There was even a stone bowl of pink salt on the table, as well as a crock of honey.
Flowering vines grew at intervals along the walls, and part of the stream had been diverted to create a fountain that ran a steady trickle of clear, cold water into a wooden basin, before the network of roots drew the water back down into the creek.
The hearth, as wide as Aurora was tall, had been carved out of the stone at the far side, and a fire of dense peat logs and fragrant cedar and hawthorn blazed merrily in the grate, but not a single spark escaped to fall on the mossy floor. Instead, it was drawn upwards through the chimney, filtered through lattices of quartz so that barely a wisp of white smoke was left to reach the air of the Moors. Thick, squat beeswax candles lined the mantle, their light reflected back by a bronze shield Diaval had found in the ruins of the fortified tower where he had first made his nest, before Aurora was born. It had been polished to a mirror sheen, so that it was almost like peering into still water at sundown.
A chair with deep cushions was next to the hearth, complete with footstool, and willow baskets holding cosy blankets of the softest, lightest, warmest wool and shawls that were so finely made they seemed to be made from spider's silk. Instead of cast iron, which might have slowly poisoned faery inhabitants, Diaval had plundered a few burial mounds for a plethora of copper and bronze helmets, torques, shields, and swords which Maleficent had shaped with her magic to create a copper hob from which a kettle and small cauldron hung. But even these were fashioned like vines, with lifelike leaves and berries. They gleamed and shone brightly as sunlight poured in from above. There was even an area set apart like a stillroom, herbs and flowers hung upside down to dry.
Deep, wide steps led upward from the main room to the bedroom, which was easily twice the size of the cramped loft of the cottage where Aurora had lived the first sixteen years of her life. However, the same flowering vines covered in purple mallow flowers grew in an arch over a bed of blackthorn branches woven together and filled with pillows stuffed with flax and a feather bed so thick Aurora nearly disappeared as she sank into it with a delighted gasp. White sheepskin fleece were in the place of rugs, and lanterns with more beeswax candles hung from the ceiling to cast the entire room in gold and amber once night fell.
Instead of velvet bedcurtains, glossy green ivy grew from the ceiling in waterfalls, which were held open with a single sweet pea plant. Folded at the foot of this marvellous bed was a beautifully worked counterpane with thick, warm wool batting. The embroidery (done by magic, against Diaval's protests) repeated the flowers and vines that Aurora had painted on the walls of her cottage bedroom. If perhaps said counterpane greatly resembled one that might have been stolen from a clothesline nearby nearly 17 years ago, it was surely purely coincidental.
An enormous dressing screen hid a sunken soaking tub, and could be filled with water from a below-ground hot spring just by pulling a bell-pull that moved a wooden trough up or down. Diaval was particularly proud of that, as he'd been very upset, when he had first been transformed into a man, to learn humans could not take dust baths to keep their feathers preened. And while Maleficent and most faeries in the Moors had no need for (or even concept of) modesty, Aurora had grown up very sheltered and it had been important to cater to her comfort both in form and function.
There was more than enough room for Aurora's two small wooden chests, hollows at regular intervals in the massive tree trunks for shelves waiting to be filled with books and poppets, all the treasures she had in the world, with room for more as they were discovered. Fireflies made their home in the ivy, making it seem as if the entire room were enchanted.
As they entered and inspected each room, Aurora had squealed with delight, and if it hadn't been for Phillip being there, Diaval was certain she would have rushed ahead instead of waiting patiently to inspect every feature of each room before moving on to the next.
"You said you wished to live in a tree," Maleficent said, and Aurora threw her arms around her.
"It's perfect. It's everything I could have imaged and more! It's like living in a faery story, truly."
"We do live in a faery story," Diaval pointed out with a wry smile.
"You have Diaval to thank," Maleficent said, tipping her horns toward him. "He's spent so long observing humans, he knows their needs far better than I."
Aurora clasped both his hands in hers, her cheeks pink and eyes bright. "It's wonderful."
"Only the best nest for my fledge." Diaval ducked his head, slightly embarrassed, though he was pleased as pudding that she liked it. It had taken two days and a night of fiddling, and sketching and erasing and sketching diagrams again and again in the dirt as he explained what he saw in his head. He'd never realised before how complex humans' nests were, compared with a simple raven's.
"Oh, but your nest!" Aurora's hand flew to her mouth. "It was in this tree. You were so very proud of it."
"Eh, as second nests go, it was alright I suppose. But I've got a better spot picked out for the next one, don't you worry. You wouldn't want me living on top of you anyway."
"Of course I would! I've never known life without you, silly bird." She got up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
"It's extraordinary," Phillip said, fascinated by walls the trees created, so close together not even a butterfly wing could have slid between them. "It makes my father's hunting lodge seem crude and ugly by comparison. I am so, so envious of the bath in particular. The idea of drawing a long hot bath after a ride without having need to disturbing servants and waiting for the water to be heated seems like an incredible luxury."
The three of them stared at Phillip, who blushed beet red to the very roots of his hair with embarrassment. Truly, it was the longest speech Diaval had ever heard him make, but that was primarily because for most of their acquaintance Phillip had been unconscious, bobbing along behind him like a cork in a stream.
"I mean only—the design is immensely clever, in every way. No queen could ask for chambers more perfectly suited to her grace and temperament."
"Oh. You're still here." Maleficent's tone was completely flat. "Why is that, exactly?"
"Godmother, you know Phillip was most gracious, helping me to gather my things."
"Yes. He has arms for lifting things. Quite useful. But why is he still here?"
"Godmother!" Aurora was dismayed by Maleficent's blatant rudeness, but Diaval sought to smooth her ruffled feathers.
"His parents the king and queen of..."
"Ulstead," Phillip and Aurora chorused.
"...Ulstead are no doubt wondering if he's been stolen away by bears or what have you. It's probably best if he returns to them, before they send soldiers scouring the forest for his remains."
Aurora did not seem much calmed by this. Phillip, however, finally seemed to catch on.
"He's right, I'm afraid. I was due to return home three days ago. I sent a herald with a missive before we left Kin—your castle. But it's best I return before my mother begins to worry. She has a very delicate constitution."
"Does she? How unfortunate. I could speed your journey, if you wouldn't mind being transformed into something small and easy to carry." Maleficent smiled serenely in such a way as to perfectly display her sharp white teeth, and Phillip blanched.
"What a generous offer," Phillip said, showing a fine grasp of diplomacy for one so young, "but I must decline."
"Ah well, too bad," Diaval clapped him on the back again. "Lovely meeting you."
"Oh, but you will come back again, won't you?" Aurora said quickly, blushing prettily. "To visit. To visit properly, I mean."
"I would like that very much," the boy said, and bowed before kissing Aurora's hand.
Once Phillip had finally ridden off, Aurora waving to him until he disappeared completely from sight beneath the trees along the border, Diaval cleared his throat. The late afternoon sunshine had warmed his black leather scarecrow's coat, and so he'd foregone it, choosing instead to leave it draped over a low tree branch.
"Aurora, Mistress, now that it's just, well... the three of us," he glanced around, making sure the flower pixies weren't lurking, "there's something I wanted to give you."
He pulled his leather pouch from where he'd tucked it in his belt, suddenly self-conscious.
"What is it?" Aurora asked, curious.
Diaval tipped two stones into his palm. The smooth, irregularly shaped stones were a deep, vibrant blue, shot through with gold. Both had holes bored through them, so that once long ago they might hang from a bit of leather, or a golden chain.
Maleficent's in-drawn breath and sudden stillness gave him pause, but he was committed.
"I don't know the entire story, but I reckon a long time ago, these were taken from the Moors, and fashioned into tokens of love and affection. But the giver proved false, and hurt those he claimed to love the most."
Diaval met Maleficent's eyes, worried he might see them glowing eldritch green with anger. But they were still gold, bright and curious, as he took one in each hand and held them out to each of them.
"So I thought that it would be right and proper, that they be put back where they belonged, by your hands."
Maleficent barely seemed to breath as Aurora took the stone he'd offered, running her fingers over it. "You're talking about my father, aren't you."
"Yes. He gave this to," he almost said your mother but thought better of it, "the late queen, when they were wed. She never knew his true face until he gave you away to the pixies to raise, without her knowledge. She died when you were a girl, but ... he glanced nervously at Maleficent, whose face was a mask, "she never stopped loving you."
Aurora's eyes filled with sudden tears, and Diaval instantly regretted his words. But then the girl threw her arms around his neck and hugged him fiercely. He felt her tears hot against his neck, but when she pulled back, she was smiling despite them.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I can't make right, the things he did. Undo all the hurt he caused—not just for you, but everyone who was touched by his evil. But it feels right, putting one small thing right after all this time."
"Diaval..." Maleficent still hadn't reached for the stone resting in his palm.
"If it's too painful a reminder, Mistress, then I beg your forgiveness. I know this has meant to be a time of celebration and joy—"
"Shut up," she said softly, wiping at her eye, and biting at her bottom lip as she gazed upwards into the morning sky. "Idiot bird."
"If you turn me into a mealy worm," Diaval said quickly, "I'll understand. I will."
He didn't know what to do, how to erase what had been done. Take back the words. He wasn't even exactly sure he should want to. He knew only that being a raven was sometimes easier than being a man, and sometimes having a voice and using it was borrowing trouble.
But ravens, as everyone knows, are drawn to anything that shines. And Maleficent shone so very, very brightly.
She came forward, and rested her forehead against his, folding her wings around them. He pressed the stone into her hand, and then held her hand with both of his.
"I don't know how you found it—or how you pieced together... everything. But you're right. This is a time for joy, and not regret."
She stepped back, and he let his hands drop back down to his sides.
"And delivering this home feels like a good beginning."
Maleficent led them to the fen where the blue-gold jewels could be found. It was close to the border, but she had never brought either Aurora or Diaval there before.
Old oak trees grew along the stream, their roots gnarled and exposed where they clung to the moss-covered rocks. It was a beautiful place, quiet and secluded. Reeds lined the edges of the shallow water, along with brilliant red flowers the exact shade of cardinals' robes. The air was fragrant from rue, loosestrife, elder flowers and meadowsweet, sweet pea, and sandwort that grew in abundance. Even the thick green moss that covered the ground had tiny purple campion flowers sprouting in the dappled sunlight.
Rather, it would have been a beautiful place, except for one thing.
Standing alone on bare stones, was a massive oak. Its raised roots created a natural V-shaped cradle, which looked as if it would have been the perfect place to rest and enjoy a warm afternoon. But it was cold and uninviting when compared to the rest of the Moors, which were bursting with colour from Aurora's coronation. A few dead leaves clung to the otherwise bare branches, and the moss on the surrounding rocks was brittle and brown. The water reeds lining the stream were greying and dead. There were no living plants or flowers that Diaval could see. It was as if the tree had been blasted by a deadly freeze, and the earth salted in its wake.
Aurora looked perplexed, but Diaval knew almost instantly, and watched Maleficent's face carefully.
This had been where she and Stefan had met, the night he stole her wings. They had come to a place that must have been a shared childhood memory—that held significance for them both. And it was tainted, now. Barren.
It was on the tip of his human tongue to apologise for forcing her to return to this spot that she had avoided for over seventeen years. But his Mistress held her head high, and had a sweet smile for Aurora, who laced her fingers through Maleficent's own and they walked right up to the water's edge.
Through the dead reeds and algae, Diaval could see the bed of stones beneath the water. The gold veins must have been just too tempting for a human boy dreaming of his fortune to resist, once upon a time. And even a raven would have been tempted, if the sun had caught them just right.
But the murky water was dark, and it was difficult to discern shapes and colours. Like viewing everything through the gold curtain in Aurora's nursery in the palace. Indistinct shapes and outlines. No clear, true picture at all.
"How should we do it?" Aurora asked, chewing on her bottom lip. "Is there a ceremony, or some special words we should say?"
"No, Beastie. We're just returning something that was stolen. Putting something right."
"Go ahead, Aurora," Diaval said, giving their fledge a lopsided smile. "Toss it in, and we'll watch the ripples, right?"
"All right," she said with complete seriousness, and she looked down at the stone which rested in the palm of her right hand. Then she closed her fingers around it and threw it, as if she were skipping flat stones across a millpond.
The jewel didn't skip, but sank, and they watched the ripples as they moved outward, finally disappearing against the rocks.
"Now you, Godmother," Aurora said with a gentle smile as she tucked a wayward curl behind her ear.
Maleficent stared down at the stone, and closed her fingers around it so tightly, Diaval wondered if there would be nothing left but dust when she opened hr hand. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, and then she tossed the stone as hard and as far as she could.
They saw the splash where it landed, and Diaval began to watch the ripples.
As they approached the shore, he realised the water was becoming clearer, until it was so clear he could have picked out the shape of every single pebble. Aurora gasped and cried out with joy as green growing things began reclaiming the barren space. Shoots pushed up through the rich dark soil, and glossy leaves uncurled from the buds on the branches, followed by green acorns. Rich green turf crept forwards, a riot of flowers in its wake. They seemed to bloom all at once, stands of heather and broom carpeting the ground and flowering vines climbed the trees, like ribbons on a maypole.
"It's so beautiful," Aurora breathed, and Maleficent gave the girl a fond smile.
"Yes, it is."
"Beautiful," Diaval agreed, but he wasn't looking at the healed land. He was looking at his mistress, who inclined her head every so slightly, acknowledging his regard.
For the first time either of them could remember Aurora was excited to turn in early.
She'd fought and fought for months to stay up past moonrise, so she could spend as much time in the Moors as she dared. But now she was excited to sleep in her new home, in her new bed. For all she appeared a full fledged woman, Diaval noted she was still very much the child with whom he'd played at knights and dragons in the cottage garden.
Earlier, Diaval had helped Phillip bring in what little Aurora had brought from the woodcutter's cottage. It wasn't much; she'd left the furniture, and most of what the pixies had brought with them when she was a baby.
She had decided to ask her regent in Perceforest if could be repaired and tenants installed in the form of the elder maid who had tended to her in the castle, and whatever family she may have. If nothing else, the goats, laying hens, and horses needed looking after, and they would make a fine gift. Aurora had fond memories of that woodcutter's cottage, and seeing someone working that land to feed their family would bring her much joy.
As first royal decrees went, it was a deeply personal one. The council had grumbled, but her castellan had assured her it would be done as she'd asked.
After hanging all her gowns on pegs, and unpacking her books, paints, and all her childhood toys (Maleficent had made the poppets dance onto the shelves with her magic, much to Aurora's delight) they had retired to have their dinner before the hearth. Dinner consisted of wild onion, mushroom, and garlic stew, fresh-baked oatcakes with honey, and all the fruits Maleficent had conjured.
There was even some elderberry wine, of which Aurora was allowed a half of a very small glass. While baking was completely outside their purview, apparently Flittle had become an adept brewer, during her time masquerading as a human. At the very least, Diaval assumed drinking would have made living with Knotgrass more bearable.
Aurora would miss the milk and cheese the goats had provided, but Diaval promised he'd introduce her to the wonders of songbird eggs. She'd been appalled at first, until he assured her ravens were omnivores. That had not exactly brought her peace of mind, but she'd long grown used to Diaval being, well... Diaval.
Of course, the best part of living in a faery house in the Moorlands was that just as they had finished eating, invisible hands removed their trenchers, cups, spoons and knives. Brownies were a wonder, that was for certain. They made a nest nearly as cosy as a raven might.
Once Aurora had crawled into her bed, warm and safe beneath the blankets, she had fallen asleep almost immediately. Which was a blessing, considering the last few nights she'd been too afraid that if she closed her eyes, she might never open them again. Maleficent had promised that she would always be here to wake her, but Diaval knew it would take some time for all of them to recover from the events of the past sennight.
"It's a beautiful nest," Maleficent said as she and Diaval began walking toward the rowan tree. She had made a new nest there, and much to Diaval's disappointment, hadn't fallen out once yet.
"You did all the real work, with the magic and the growing things and all." Diaval had reclaimed his long coat, and was patting the pockets absently, trying to remember what had been in them before he'd set it down. Things had a habit of wandering, with all the playful sprites and hobs and such. But his wooden raven was tucked deep in one pocket, and his pouch of treasure had stayed safe inside his shirt, warmed by his skin. "I just figured out what should go where, is all."
"That is most certainly not all," she chided him, flashing him a genuine smile that nearly dropped him then and there. He wasn't sure he was used to this new, kinder, slightly gentler mistress.
Before flying up to the rowan tree, they stopped to sit on a fallen tree that was overgrown with moss and lichen. The moon hadn't risen yet, but the Moors were alive with will-o'-the-wisps, fireflies, and other glowing faerie creatures.
"Do you remember the first time we met?" he asked, and she narrowed her eyes.
"Of course I do. I saved your life."
"No." He chuckled, shaking his head. "No, before that. You'd climbed to the ruins. It took ages and ages on two legs, with just your staff to lean on. But you saw me watching, you shooed me away. Gave me quite the hotfoot, in fact."
"That was you?" she said archly, but he wasn't fooled. Not for a second.
Diaval just tilted his head and looked at her. "Isn't that why you saved me from the farmer and his dogs?"
"I don't remember," she said airily. "What is your point, Diaval?"
"You made me to be your wings, when you had none. But you've got yours back now."
"Most observant, as usual," she said dryly. She made a point of leaning back slightly and spreading her wings to their full span, before folding them neatly against her back.
He crossed his arms, and looked down at the toes of his boots. Boots that in nearly twenty years had never needed mending. His human toes inside his human boots no longer felt strange to him, and he'd calluses despite his mistress' magic. Some things always change and grow, become worn and needing repair, even when properly cared for.
"For nearly seventeen years, I thought, surely I must be a terrible reminder of that day, of all the things you had lost. That had been taken from you. I was the only living thing to see your pain, to see your grief." He sneaked a look at her face, and saw she was staring at him, Maleficent's lips parted in surprise. "I couldn't understand how you could bear to even look at me. "
She didn't seem to know where to look, and was visibly flustered, but he just kept going as if it were easy. And he'd rehearsed it enough times in his mind, this particular conversation. Maybe that was why he had the courage.
"I gave you my true name, the first time you changed me. I didn't have to do that, but I did. Do you have any idea why?"
"How am I to guess at the inner workings of a raven's brain?" She frowned, as if she was getting bored by the conversation. But Diaval knew better. Whenever he spoke plainly about emotion, she would retreat back into her aloof, icy shell because it made her feel safe.
So when she raised her hand to change him back into a raven, he caught her bare wrist. He held her eyes, feeling the way her pulse leapt beneath the pad of his thumb. She looked at him as if she'd never truly seen him before. Perhaps she hadn't. Not the way he saw her.
"I gave you my true name, my wings, and my loyalty because I couldn't bear seeing you in pain."
Very slowly and deliberately he uncurled his fingers and dropped his hand back to his side. She continued to look at him as if she would bolt at any second.
"Even as a brash young raven who ought to have known better, I pledged myself to your service because I knew you. I saw you. Everyone else in the Moors saw your anger, your fury. But I saw how he'd hurt you. How he'd betrayed you. That's why I could never leave you. I wouldn't have wanted to. Because you needed me."
She looked away, and he watched her throat as she swallowed.
"No matter how many times you dodged an argument by magicking me back into a bird, or did exactly the opposite of whatever I suggested just to spite me. No matter the times you took out your worst moods on an innocent, decent, and completely undeserving raven, I remained by your side."
"Fine. I release you from your vow," she said dramatically, accompanying the pronouncement with a shooing gesture. However, Diaval wasn't offended. Rather, his face broke out in a wide grin.
"Funny thing about vows," he said, waving a finger. "See, it was mine to make. So you can't release me."
There was a nearly comical pause. "Are you saying I'm stuck with you?"
"Pretty much, yeah," he nodded.
"Marvellous." She stretched the word out as far as it would go, and then a little extra.
"But you haven't really answered my question," he pointed out.
She tipped her head back, and closed her eyes. "What are you asking me, Diaval?"
"I am asking," he said slowly, deliberately, as if instructing a very small child, "if you still need me. Not as wings, not as a spy. Not as a servant. But if you need me, just as I am, now that you've regained everything that was taken from you and more."
It had been in the back of his mind for a long time, the fear that she had outgrown him. Outgrown them. Because he was no longer just a raven, but neither was he quite human. Nor was he truly a creature of the Moors. He felt like a cuckoo in her nest too often. There was no place where he truly fitted except in their unlikely kindness of three. He didn't know what he would have done if she had decided he'd outlived his usefulness.
"Don't be ridiculous." She turned back to him, and reached out to cup his cheek. He stilled as she traced the raised markings at his temple delicately with the tip of one finger. "Of course I need you, Diaval."
He closed his eyes, and leaned into her touch as he sighed in relief. Whatever had been twisting inside his chest, tightening and pulling him apart, suddenly loosened. He reached up to curl his fingers around hers, brushing the pad of his thumb back and forth across the back of her hand.
She smiled back, sweetly, and Diaval suddenly had the urge to turn his face into her hand and press a kiss to her open palm. But before he could act on that reckless impulse, her eyes lit with mischief and she leaned forward, dropping her voice to a seductive purr, "I can't do this without you, Diaval."
He dropped her hand. "That's not funny."
"It's a little funny," she smiled impishly.
"I'm pouring my heart out here, and you're mocking me!" he grumbled, hoping his fair human skin wasn't betraying him with its inconvenient blushes.
Maleficent shrugged, her face the very picture of innocence. "Who knew ravens were so sensitive?"
"Everyone. Everyone kn—awk!"
She launched herself into the warm night air, laughing, and forcing him to chase her on raven wings all the way up to the rowan tree.