©2014 Bee N. Love
Pacing the length of the nursery, Queen Matilda rocked her baby daughter against her shoulder. No matter what comfort she offered, the child would not stop crying, and the Queen received no rest through the night.
As dawn broke, the ravens took flight from the rookery, circling the courtyard and conversing in their ragged voices. Suffering from exhaustion the Queen thought she heard the ravens call to her, “Send your daughter to live with us and you may rest peacefully.”
The Queen shook her head to clear it of the fantasy. The baby finally slept and the nurse arrived, allowing the Queen to go to bed.
The next night, again the baby would not sleep. Not an ounce of milk, nor a dozen songs, nor hours of rocking coaxed the child into slumber.
At the break of dawn, again the ravens of the castle took to the air, circling near the window of the nursery, their coarse voices calling to the Queen. “Send your daughter to us so that you may rest peacefully.”
“Oh, if only a wish could come true. What if I could send you out to live with the ravens and you would fly away and I could sleep through the night,” The queen whispered to her baby daughter. She was so tired, all she wanted was to sleep.
The nurse arrived, so the queen placed the bundled baby in the servant’s arms and returned to her own chambers to rest.
The third night, the baby began to cry once more, but it lasted only a minute. The queen peeked into the nursery to check on the child and found her gone. On the sill of the window sat a raven who cawed once and took flight.
The Queen never saw her daughter again.
Walking through the woods on a sunny day, a baker from the village came upon a raven with an injured wing. With gentle hands, he lifted the large bird and used a strip of cloth from his shirt to wrap the wing and help it mend. He took the raven home with him to feed it fresh bread and keep it safe until the wing healed.
After eating several pieces of bread, the raven spoke to the baker. “Thank you, sir. I am in your debt for saving me, for surely I would have become a fox’s meal in the forest.”
Curious that the raven spoke to him, the baker sat next to the bird and questioned, “How do you know how to talk? You must be someone’s pet.”
“I am no one’s pet. I was born to the Queen, but she wished me to become a raven and her wish came true. I have been a raven ever since.”
“Amazing. Your owner has trained you to tell quite a story. Are you part of a magical act? I’ll bet you hide in a box and a young woman comes out on cue.”
“No, I am not part of a magical act. I was enchanted by the ravens at the castle,” the raven explained.
“How can you prove it?” the man questioned, still unable to believe such a story.
“If you will help me reverse the enchantment, you will see that I am really a beautiful girl.”
“And how, pray tell, do I do that?” the baker asked, full of doubt.
“You must go to the castle and take the ravens a bushel of the reddest sweetest apples in all the kingdom.”
“What do the ravens want with apples?”
“They aren’t for the ravens. They are for the witch who lives in the rookery. Take the apples to the castle and she will tell you the secret to changing me back to my true form.”
Figuring he had nothing to lose, the baker collected a bushel of ripe red apples from the neighbor’s orchard, picking them in the middle of the night so he wouldn’t be seen. He didn’t want to pay for the apples, in case the story was just a story.
He took the apples to the castle three villages over to the west. The old castle stood abandoned, overgrown with vegetation. Surely this was a sign of the witch. Above him circled a congress of ravens, an unwelcome site to a man weary from traveling.
“What do you want?” he heard them call down to him, a word emitting from each raven in turn. “Why are you here?”
“I brought you a bushel of the finest apples,” he offered. “A raven told me she was enchanted by you when she was a girl and that you will help me return her to her former self.”
“A raven? One of mine?”
This time the voice came from a turret. Looking up, the baker spied the grotesque twisted face of the witch peeking through the battlements. “Hmmm. That doesn’t sound right,” the witch denied.
“She told me she was the Queen’s daughter but that you turned her into a raven,” the baker explained.
“Hmm.” The witch pondered again, stroking the two wiry hairs on her jutting chin. “Sounds familiar. Apples, you say?”
“The best apples,” he offered, gesturing to the heavy basket he’d carried a hundred miles.
“They look tasty. I’ll be down in just a minute.”
The witch’s face disappeared and the baker waited, thinking that in a magical puff of smoke, the witch would appear before him. He waited and waited, and waited some more until at last the front door of the castle opened and a hunched woman hobbled into the courtyard wearing sackcloth for a dress and a hat of folded parchment. As she walked, she hummed a tune of five notes repeatedly.
“Oh, fine apples indeed. Fine apples,” the witch muttered as her bony fingers fondled the red fruit. “They’ll be very tasty. So, you want to know how to turn a raven into a girl?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, his patience kept in check mostly by his fatigue from the travel.
“You know, the last time I changed a girl into a raven, the kingdom fell,” said the witch, her bright blue eyes studying the man. “If you change her back, she’s a poor one now. No wealth. No title. She’s been forgotten.”
Eying the derelict castle before him, the baker exhaled a sigh. “I am beginning to realize that. However, I really have no care for the wealth. I have a lucrative bakery, but I have no wife. I found the raven with a broken wing and saved her life. The girl will be beholden to me and will become my wife, once I change her back.
“Ah. I see. I see. Apples, apples, apples, tasty as can be. Apples, apples, apples, set these ravens free.”
She grabbed one and tossed it up into the air, high enough to reach the flying ravens. The largest black bird snatched the apple from the air. Landing in a bare tree, the raven took a bite of the fruit. A moment later, the bird was replaced with a boy of twelve. He finished the apple and climbed down.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” the baker said, astonished by the transformation.
“Well, that wasn’t your bird,” the witch remarked. “How many did I enchant? I don’t remember, you see. I’m too old to remember.”
“Well, it might be every one of these ravens,” the baker offered.
“Hee-hee. Could be!”
In rapid succession, the witch threw a dozen apples up and a dozen ravens ate and their enchantments were broken. A dozen children of various ages stood in the courtyard cheering.
The baker realized that the ravens, no matter how long ago they were transformed, returned to human form at the point when they were taken from their families. He wondered just what the Queen’s daughter looked like.
“My raven is right here,” he said, pulling the bird from his pack, her wing still wrapped.
The witch gave the bird an apple and a moment later, a baby girl appeared, not even a year old.
“Oh dear,” the baker sighed, holding the child in his arms.
“She’s a bit young,” the witch remarked with a twinkle.
“A bit. But I have promised to take care of her, and I’ll stand by it.” He said the words, but wondered exactly how he would take care of the infant without a mother.
“You are a good man.”
The witch bit into one of the apples and returned to the form of the Queen. When Queen Matilda had spoken the fateful words that transformed her daughter, she herself fell into despair and took the form of the witch, throwing her entire kingdom into chaos. Her husband departed with what remained of the kingdom and she stayed at the castle with the flock of ravens.
Taking her baby happily into her arms, she said to the baker. “You have saved us all. And for that, I will reward you. Marry me and you shall bake no more. We shall start a new kingdom.”
The baker examined his options. The Queen was a beautiful woman with her own property, albeit somewhat ramshackle at present. This was still an improvement upon a rented bakery, rising well before sun up each day, and working his fingers into early arthritis.
He agreed and they lived happily every after, beginning a new kingdom with all of the children.