István and the crows

Here is another snippet from my fantasy novel, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan:

Trembling with fear and rage, István swept through the high colonnade at the top of the tower. A light rain had begun as morning broke, and now drizzle was smothering the trees. From over the walls of his house, the city stretched below him, the tiles on the rooftops damp and grey. Low clouds lurked above the spiky towers and proud domes of temples, palaces and stately homes. Yet the grandeur of this part of the city had little effect on him. For István, the smell of humanity blotted out all else. It was especially bad in the mornings when a fell miasma rose from the River Li, and the stench of their cooking became inescapable, even in the furthest corners of his home.

Normally, he loathed to be out and about at that hour, but this morning was different. Shaken by the Scrubber’s news, he hastened across the red and white tiled floor. His rubbery legs squeaked as he passed along. Across from him hung a line of golden perches, suspended from one of the arches of the colonnade. On each one, a crow was waiting. There were four in all. Some of the rain hit them as they stood, but it didn’t seem to bother them. They merely flapped their wings from time to time, or picked at their feathers with their beaks. None of them made a move to fly away, although they could easily have done so. There were no tethers around their legs. Their wings had not been clipped. The crows were not kept in cages. It seemed indeed as if they stayed of their own accord. However, they did betray slight signs of agitation  by clacking their beaks and skipping up and down.

The blumman thought for a moment, placing a long finger against his lipless mouth. His head now was a dark purple, like grapes at the end of summer. The white mark in his forehead had shrunk to a small circle. Making his decision in a moment, István crossed to the crow on the far left, his yellow robe swishing. In one quick movement, he scooped the bird up in one hand, and began to stroke its feathers. It was a little older than the others, and its plumage was starting to fray. Its face was slightly white, as though it were growing grey hairs. Some of István’s rage must have betrayed him, for he could feel the animal trembling slightly in his grasp. It felt damp, and he saw that its plumage was covered with a thin sheen of rain.

Cooing slightly, István calmed the frightened bird. Once it seemed more relaxed, he reached into a pocket and took out a hazelnut. Holding it between forefinger and thumb, he motioned to the crow. At first the bird dug its beak beneath a wing, and clacked three times. István wiggled the nut between his fingers. The crow could no longer resist, but the blumman moved the nut just out of reach again. Without further prompting, the bird bowed its head, and performed a little dance, hopping back and forth along its perch. After studying the dance carefully, István waved the nut around again, and the bird repeated the dance. Satisfied that every step was the same, István gave the bird its treat. In a blur of movement, it plucked the nut from his fingers and gobbled it down. A second was offered and eaten just as quickly.

Happy that everything was correct, the blumman opened his hands and the crow flew off, through the colonnades, across the garden, its wings slicing through the rainwater. It headed east. István watched it go, until its black shadow was swallowed up by the rain. Then he turned to the other birds, who were hopping with excitement. Making clucking noises like a parent, he fed them more nuts, which they devoured happily, picking the treats from out of his outstretched hand.

(c) 2012

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