The Crow Rider – Kalyn Josephson

The ocean had always reminded me of the sky. Both were vast, ancient domains that we could never hope to control, and each time we entered them, we placed our lives in the hands of something that could crush us. Something about that thrilled me. I stood at the bow of the Aizel dressed in my flying leathers and a thick green cloak the ship’s captain, Samra, had reluctantly lent me. Salt air nipped at my face, the wind running long fingers through my curls and lifting them to dance like ribbons. A shadow rippled across the water ahead of the ship. I lifted a hand, feeling the brush of feathers a moment before Resyries landed on the railing before me. Wings outstretched against the wind, the crow balanced effortlessly, the gossamer shine of his dark feathers blending into the blue predawn light. The connection between us thrummed with quiet contentment, something neither of us had had much of in recent days. After our flight from Illucia, we’d headed to the Ambriel Islands but had decided to skirt around them rather than make land, since the islands were likely full of Illucian soldiers searching for us. Their queen was not going to let me escape so easily. Not when I was the only one who could hatch the crow eggs she’d stolen from Rhodaire. Not to mention I was technically still betrothed to her son. I winced at the thought of Ericen. Unexpectedly, we’d become friends during my time in Illucia.

The fingerless leather gloves I wore each day had been a present from him, a symbol of strength when I’d needed it most. But the prince was loyal to his kingdom. Loyal to his mother. “I have to let him go, Res,” I said into the wind. So why couldn’t I? Res trilled softly, sensing my melancholy mood. Nearly a month old now, he was almost big enough to ride, a thought that both thrilled and terrified me. I was days away from reaching a goal I’d been working toward my entire life, but I couldn’t separate it from what else it meant: war was coming, and we were ill-prepared. I crossed my arms against the chill wind. “This is all such a mess. Caliza doesn’t even know about the eggs Razel took, let alone that we’ve escaped and are heading for Trendell.

She’s probably worried sick.” I had a letter prepared for her but hadn’t yet been able to send it. It pained me to think of her worrying, though she’d never let her distress show. It’d always been that way. Her the sturdy land, me the wild air, our mother the ever-changing sea. What would she think of her daughters now? Res turned, leaning his head toward me. I placed a hand on his beak, and for a moment, there was only us. A girl, a crow, and the vastness of the empty sea. I gathered that feeling of serenity and tucked it away inside myself. Whatever came next, I wanted to remember this moment of peace.

A thin line of sunlight cut a red slash across the horizon, softening quickly into the warm orange of a candle flame. It illuminated a distant coastline like the spine of a slumbering beast. Rhodaire. Our route had taken us far out to sea in a wide arc, consuming two weeks and most of our supplies but hopefully throwing Razel off our trail. All that mattered was that we still had enough time to reach Trendell before Belin’s Day, when the other kingdoms had agreed to meet and hear out my pleas for an alliance against Illucia. In a couple of weeks, we would either stand united against the empire or fall divided beneath their blades. The deck creaked, and Caylus appeared at my side. Every inch of him was pulled tight, from the rigidity of his broad shoulders to the steel in his green eyes. Words had never been his strength, but our proximity to the Ambriels had only made him more withdrawn. The sea breeze caught my hair again, lifting and tossing my dark curls as a slow, heavy unease curled in my chest, thick with guilt.

It was my fault Caylus had been torn from yet another home. My fault Kiva lay injured in bed, her sword arm now useless. My fault everyone on this ship was now a target for a cruel queen. I wanted to be a leader, to be the sort of person people wanted to follow. So far, I’d only made things worse. I slipped my hand into his. “What are you thinking about?” I asked. It was one of his favorite questions. He might be shier than a spring flower in winter, but he did like to talk to me, and I liked to listen. “Crows,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“Magic.” The smile faded. “War.” I squeezed his hand. “I know I said it before, but I understand if you don’t want to do this. It isn’t your fight.” Though the idea of doing this without Caylus at my side hurt more than I wanted to admit. He was a steady rock, a comforting reflection. We understood each other, and in a way, we’d help rebuild each other. But that didn’t make this his war.

He bit his lip, but before he could respond, footsteps made us both turn. Samra stood in the center of the deck, her unruly black curls pulled up in a tight bun, her good eye sharp as freshly cut glass. “We need to talk.” * * * In the warmth of Samra’s small office, Caylus and I sat in two handcrafted chairs opposite the captain’s own. Loath to be left out of anything, Res had crowded in behind, though he was as tall as Caylus and twice as big around. He dropped his head onto my shoulder as if it might make him smaller. I was keenly aware of Kiva’s absence. Her shoulder had healed quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, but the pain tonic the ship’s healer, Luan, had her on made her sleepy. She often wasn’t up until late in the afternoon. A pot of tea steamed in the center of the great oak desk, a matching set of carved antlers supporting the tabletop.

The office was simple, almost bare, save for a narrow shelf lined with trinkets and books. A worn flag bearing the ship’s namesake, an aizel—a snow-white, horned cat—sat beside tiny wooden ships painted pure black, colorful bits of rope tied in complicated knots, and small sandstone figurines of seahorses and miniature krakens. Two weeks on her ship had done little to warm Samra to me, though I was starting to doubt “warm” could ever describe her. The captain was gruffer than a jagged cliff. If she weren’t the leader of the Ambriellan rebels and didn’t share my goal, I’d have expected her to have thrown us overboard by now, if only because Res’s talons had left more than one scratch on her ship, not to mention the wind, rain, and lightning. His control over his magic had grown considerably, though he still had far to go. Not for the first time I wished Estrel was here. She’d taught me everything I knew. I felt like a pale imitation trying to do the same for Res, but I had to try. His mastery over basic winds and rain could only take us so far.

We needed lightning and thunder, powerful gales and torrential downpours. We needed a storm. Samra didn’t sit as she poured light golden tea into handleless mugs smaller than my palm. The steam carried the flowery scent of chamomile as she passed each of us a cup with the solemnity of an Ambriellan priestess handing out prayer candles. “We’re approaching the Rhodairen port of Cardail,” she began, long brown fingers curling around her mug. “We’ll stop there to resupply and then strike out for Trendell. It should take us just over a week, which will put us in Eselin several days before Belin’s Day.” A quiet excitement swelled inside me. Cardail wasn’t Aris, but it was still Rhodaire, and not too long ago, I’d thought I’d never see it again. Res let out a low trill as my emotions seeped down the bond.

“You’re going to love it,” I told him. “We have the best bakeries.” I shot a glance at Caylus, expecting him to protest, but his distant gaze was set on the small round window at Samra’s back overlooking the sea. I’d hoped some distance between us and the islands would return the curious, absentminded boy I knew, but he hadn’t even shown much interest in Res’s training the last few days. “The point of this stop isn’t to indulge the crow’s sugar addiction,” Samra growled, ignoring Res’s squawk of disagreement. “We get in, get what we need, and get out. Cardail is too close to the Illucian-occupied area of Rhodaire to risk staying for long.” Illucian-occupied area of Rhodaire. How could five words turn my blood to ice so easily? My hand tightened around the warmth of the mug. Surrounded by endless water, it was easy to feel disconnected from the truth waiting for us on land: an army sat on Rhodaire’s doorstep, and it was poised to attack.

I started to object, but Samra talked over me. “On that note, any of you making the trip onto land will do so cloaked and hooded.” She downed the last of her tea as if it were a shot of Ambriellan whiskey. “I don’t want word getting back about my connection to you.” Samra might head the Ambriellan rebellion, but she was also the daughter of the kingdom’s council leader, and that council was pledged to Illucia. It was her pretense as a loyal servant of the empire that made her such an effective rebel, and being seen harboring fugitives wouldn’t just mean the end of her façade but potentially her family’s lives, something she’d made quite clear when she agreed to take us to Trendell. “That also means no crow,” she said. Res lifted his head with a snap of his beak, a spark of lightning buzzing at the tip. The captain stared flatly back at him. “You do draw a bit of attention,” I said reluctantly.

He straightened, rolling back his shoulders as if to say “as I should.” It lasted all of a second before he perked up, head tilted as if listening. A moment later, the door burst open, and Kiva appeared in the doorway, pale, sweating, and clutching her injured shoulder. “Come quick. Something’s wrong.” Two Cardail was on fire. Or at least, it had been. Thick plumes of smoke rose from the charred remains of the town, great swaths of black cutting through the town like the aftermath of fiery talons. Jagged holes gaped in the place of windows, and broken doors hung off hinges. The street along the seaside was eerily empty.

A graveyard of splintered wood and torn sails was all that remained of the ships once docked in the bay. It looked like Aris after Ronoch. “What happened?” Caylus asked. “I’d wager fire, but I s’pose lightning could have done it.” The voice of the ship’s lookout, Talon, floated down from the rigging above. “Your crow doesn’t sleep fly, does he? Either way, that town’s right charred through. Like a Duren’s Day cuttlefish.” “Enlightening, Talon,” Kiva intoned. “Your skills are wasted on this ship.” He winked and flashed her a grin.

“It was Razel.” The Illucian queen’s name was a bite of steel in my mouth. “We thought she might attack Rhodaire to draw me out.” “We don’t know anything yet.” Samra regarded the town with folded arms and an impassive gaze. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” Kiva snorted. “A Rhodairen town along the coast to Aris from Illucia was set on fire. Seems like a pretty clear message to me.” I eyed the ship wreckage, memories of fire and smoke threatening to claw their way out.

Res trilled softly and nudged my head with his beak. My hand reflexively found his feathers, seeking his warm reassurance. “Can you navigate through the debris?” I asked Samra. She looked at me as if I’d asked whether she knew Res had feathers and didn’t answer. Around us, the crew was already in motion, adjusting sails and ropes. Caylus peeled off to join them, something he’d often done during our time at sea. Apparently, children in the Ambriels were trained to sail the same way Rhodairens learned the crows and Illucians the sword. It seemed to soothe him, if only for a while. Kiva swayed slightly at my side. I put a steadying hand on her uninjured shoulder.

“You should go back to bed.” “And let you and bird brain go into the mysterious smoking town without me? Not happening.” She flashed me a smile that was half grimace. Res clipped his beak in annoyance, releasing a puff of wind that fluttered Kiva’s braid. I rolled my eyes. Where Caylus and Res got on wonderfully—likely a result of the copious amount of treats he fed the crow—Kiva had never been much of an animal person. That and she was literally incapable of not insulting everyone she met. It took several minutes for the crew to steer through the wreckage and bring the ship safely into port. When the gangplank lowered, Samra led me, Res, Kiva, and Caylus down onto the dock. “I thought I said no crow,” Samra said.

“That was before we found the place ransacked,” I sniped back. Her constant orders were starting to grate on me. We were supposed to be in a partnership, but Samra seemed to think I was one of her crew. It didn’t help that she had a way of seizing control of a conversation, making me feel like I needed to defer to her. How was I supposed to convince her to ally with Rhodaire, to think of me as an equal, if she treated me like a child? The captain spared me a brief scowl before charging on ahead. She slid a thin mask over her face, the same half-black, half-white one she’d been wearing when I first met her in Caylus’s workshop. Anyone who saw Res would know us in a heartbeat, but she’d remain anonymous. We moved together through the deserted streets, picking our way through overturned crates and the smoldering remains of goods and scattered belongings. A child’s stuffed crow lay singed and still smoking in an empty doorway, an overturned cart of woven rugs that had been slashed to ribbons across from it. Shattered glass mixed with ash, and the scorched leaves of trees turned to blackened skeletons.

I took every step with my breath trapped in my throat, waiting for the all-too-familiar sight of gleaming bone and melted skin. Kiva’s boot caught a stone and she lurched forward. Before I could react, Res was there, his outstretched wing guiding her back to her feet. She shot me a look, daring me to comment, but I didn’t have the spirit for mirth any longer. Not as the slow reality of what had happened sank in. “Where is everyone?” she asked. “You don’t think Razel ki—” “No.” I refused to think it. These people were not dead. If Razel had attacked to draw me out, if my escape had led to these people living through what I had… “No,” I said again.

Caylus slowed beside a pile of debris. He knelt and reached for a strip of blue cloth. My first thought was Illucia, but the shade was wrong. It wasn’t the royal hue they bore but a bright, sea-blue ice. And the sight of it turned him to stone. Just as I started to ask, rocks clattered in an alley to our side. I whirled as a thin form leapt into view, bow drawn and aimed at Kiva. “No!” I leapt toward her at the same moment the string resounded with a snap. I waited for the thud of metal in flesh and the wave of pain, but it didn’t come. My eyes had closed involuntarily, and I slowly peeled them open.

The arrow hovered inches from my face. It dropped to the ground with a clatter, taking my breath with it. I nearly wilted, but Kiva seized my arm. Res’s eyes glowed bright silver. He’d done it again. In Illucia, Res had shown signs of magic beyond his expected storm abilities. Somehow, he’d wielded a shadow crow’s power to hide and shook the earth with the magic of an earth crow. Now he’d stopped the arrow like a battle crow. “H-How?” the shooter stuttered. His thin voice stilled me.

He was only a boy. Ten, maybe eleven at the most. The bow was too big for him, the quiver sagging loose at his hip. He fumbled for another arrow but dropped it, nearly losing hold of the bow in his attempt to catch it. With a curse, he turned to flee—and ran straight into Samra. She caught him by the forearms, hardly seeming to notice his struggle. “Explain yourself.” “Let him go!” My voice cracked as I surged forward. Samra frowned, and I straightened beneath her dark gaze. “He’s a Rhodairen citizen, a child, and I said to let him go.

” She watched me with that same unreadable look, holding on a moment longer as if to test me. Then she slowly unfurled her fingers. The boy stumbled back, rubbing at his wrists. “Please don’t hurt me,” he begged. “I thought you were them.” “We’re not going to hurt you,” I said softly.

.

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