The huge raven alighted on the branch that buckled under her weight. The object of her attention was a man leading a horse through the forest at the edge of the lake. The raven was ravenously hungry, anticipating a feast of eyes, tongue and liver when the Rusalka was finished with him. The thought of the Rusalka made the raven nervous. She shifted on the branch making the man with the horse look up suddenly.
"Stop following me, bird," shouted the man, breaking the silence. He looked around for something convenient to throw at the raven but unable to find anything but contented himself with muttering some curses. "The gods have forsaken this land. There are no animals or people anywhere.," he mumbled, “except for that demon pretending to be a raven.”
The raven looked at him curiously, paying a bit more attention to her prospective meal. She could hear other being’s thoughts if she concentrated although she seldom did so much these days. Sometimes in the past she had been more curious about people. She often had flashes of a different life but when it happened it made her uneasy. The best way to get rid of those intrusions was by hunting and eating. The past was the past. The present was what mattered.
The raven focused her attention on where she thought the Rusalka would be. When it started singing she had better get out of hearing. She would come back for the meal when the Rusalka had finished with whatever it wanted with the man. The two predators had worked together from last Spring and the raven saw no benefit in becoming one of the Rusalka's victims. The unlikely partnership was what had allowed the raven to stop the endless searching. She had forgotten what she was searching for which made it hard to find whatever it was. The raven croaked in what might have been a laugh if her vocal chords could have made the sound. Maybe partnership was the wrong concept, the Rusalka was unlikely to enter any sort of partnership, she was the most powerful predator in this region. But Autumn was here and with food becoming scarce she might have to resume her endless flight. The Rusalka seemed to be getting sleepier as the colder days arrived and was less active. That meant less food and more active hunting for her.
The raven turned her attention back to the man. The horse he led was lame and both seemed wet, hungry and exhausted from the recent incessant rains. It was unusual to see people travel in late Autumn. The man must have a pressing need.
The raven listened to the man. Perhaps with her acute hearing she could hear sub-vocalisations or perhaps she could hear his thoughts. She never really was interested to find out which. The man was thinking of his wife and three daughters. He was calling them over as he pictured himself sitting in a comfortable seat beside a fire. He was explaining to them that the Boyar had asked him to take a message to the Prince of Kiev and that it could not wait for Spring. His words or thoughts changed and seemed to move to the present. He was telling his wife that he missed her and feared he would not return. She needed to look after the girls and make sure that Boyar Yaromir found them good husbands. He cursed Yaromir and wished him all manner of unpleasantries. In the middle of his monologue he slipped and fell, twisting his ankle on an exposed tree root. He cursed the gods, cursed the marshes, cursed the lakes and in particular, cursed tree roots. What I need he said out loud is Baba Yaga's hut. His thoughts and words were interrupted by singing.
The raven started, stretched her wings and flew off. She did not want to be caught by that beautiful, unearthly song. Her brain was fogged by images of wellness and desire. She had only to find the source of the song and she would have anything she desired. But the Rusalka lied. She always lied. The only reward for anyone who believed the song was a watery death. From a safe distance she watched the man drop the horse’s reins and swollen ankle forgotten, move at almost a run towards the source of the sounds.
A short time later the music stopped and then an ethereal shout of ‘Elena’ echoed through the empty woods rising to a crescendo and then fading like the wind in the empty night. The raven knew it was time to eat. She soared over the cold, deep lake, quickly spotting the body. Landing beside it, she chased off several other scavengers who wanted the fresh meat. They all gave way to the outsized Raven. She started with the eyes, the juiciest parts and would finish with the liver. She was interrupted by a bear but it backed off. The raven ruffled her feathers, proud that she was powerful enough to scare a bear only to be quickly corrected in her assumption.
"I am curious," said the voice behind her. The raven shifted position to look at the Rusalka sitting on a rock observing her. “I am curious about a raven that is not a raven," said the Rusalka.
"So am l," said the Raven." but I can't help you with the answer."
"Do you get sleepy too in the winter? I find I grow very sleepy in winter and my memories fade. In Spring I awaken refreshed and remember who I am, who I was"
"Not at all, this is not similar for me” answered the raven, "and l have always been a raven.”
"But that is not what I see," said the Rusalka smiling," I think l was once a woman, who was warm and loved. Maybe I loved too much. But the memories are dim. I think you also were a woman, but did not love like I did."
The Raven looked anxiously around, judging if she could escape the Rusalka. "Fear not!' said the grinning Rusalka, "I am sated and warm after I fed on your meat’s soul, I will not harm you. I can see you were once something else. Have you been ensorcelled?"
"I have always been a Raven. I do not recall any other existence but there are sometimes dreams."
The Rusalka seemed to lose interest in the conversation. She began to look around. The raven became wary.
"Maybe you would like me to sing for you," said the Rusalka. The Raven did not wait to reply. She stretched her wings and flew. Her flight was followed by the sound of soft laughter.
Edited by Nozbat