THE RAVEN

There is large wooden door, heavily carved, set into a wall of stone. From behind it can be heard loud screaming, the voice of a child having a tantrum and a woman trying to calm it, at first, and then screaming back. A woman dressed in an elaborate gown and wearing a golden circlet comes out of the door and slams it, leaning back against it and knotting her fingers in her dress. She laments her inability to quiet the princess, and wishes that the child were a raven and would fly away and give her some peace. The noise from behind the door abruptly stops. She runs into the room, only to find it empty, with the curtains blowing in the wind.

Black wings pass in front of the view of a large castle set atop a mountain that shines like glass in the twilight.
Villages and farm land sail by far below, with the occasional sound of air stirred by wings. A dense forest appears, and consumes the view until everything is dark.

Out of the darkness comes a tuneless whistling. A young TRAVELLER is walking along a path through the forest, a water skin slung over one shoulder. He wears a felt hat, and deep green eyes and dark hair peek out from under the brim. His clothes are journey-worn and simple, a tunic and jerkin belted at the waist with a pouch for money and flint, pants of deep brown, and boots with old mud stains. He walks at a good pace but casually, as though he has all the time in the world. Around him birds twitter and the late morning sun drifts through the leaves. He takes up his water skin to take a drink; but finds it empty. With a shrug he picks up his whistling again, but in the distance there is a sharp counterpoint to his gentle tune, the caw of some bird. He stops for a moment, then begins to whistle again. Again the bird caws, louder this time. As he listens, it beings to sound less like a bird and more like crying. He furrows his brows, hesitates, then steps off the path in the direction of the sound.

The forest becomes darker and denser as he moves through it, following the sound of crying. Finally he comes to a small clearing from which the sound seems to emanate; he looks around in confusion, as there is no one. Then he spies a raven perched on a gnarled tree branch. As it cries it trembles. The traveller slowly approaches the bird, and after a moment's consideration asks it why it is crying. The raven seems surprised, and stops immediately; as the traveller gazes on it, it somehow seems less like a bird, and more like a young woman wrapped in a cape of feathers. As he stares the woman's eyes widen. She tells him that she is in fact the daughter of a king, and not a bird at all; she is bewitched and he is the one who can set her free. He asks what he must do, and she explains that if he walks deeper into the forest he will find a house. An old woman dwells there, who will press food and drink upon him, but he must not partake of either, or he will fall into a deep sleep and be unable to free her. In the back garden is a stone bench, upon which he must sit and wait for her. For three days she will come at the same time in the afternoon, in a carriage pulled by white horses on the first day, then chestnut, and then black on the third day. If he is asleep when she comes, then he will have failed her.

The traveller immediately promises to do exactly as directed; but the raven merely looks at him sadly and says that he will not. Somewhat annoyed, he promises again, and sets off along a narrow path that leads deeper into the woods.

He finds the house shortly, a small, rounded, stucco construction with deep eaves and a stone path. He knocks on the door, and it is answered by an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl. She sees his empty water skin and straight away insists that he refresh himself. He explains that he is quite all right, but she lets him have no peace, persistently offering him drink and food, until he finally agrees to one sip of water to alleviate her distress at the refused hospitality.

The appointed time has arrived and he stands before the stone bench in the back garden, awaiting the raven's approach. Hardly any time has passed before he is overwhelmed by exhaustion and sits down. Shortly thereafter, he has his head propped up with his hands and is fighting to keep his eyes open. The raven arrives with her carriage drawn by four white horses, but her attempts to wake him fail.

The next day, the old woman again brings him refreshment, They fight long and hard, as she tries to tempt him with one thing and another, or appeal to his sense of propriety, and he eventually is so worn down that he again accepts a drink of water. She shakes him and calls out, but he hardly stirs.

The following day the young man chooses to wait on the bench from early morning, to better avoid the old woman's advances. But she is unperturbed, and proves such a nuisance that he is almost at the brink of his sanity. When it seems that she has decided to leave him in peace at last, she arrives with a glass of wine with such an unresistable odor that he cannot suffer it any longer, and drinks first a sip, then drains the cup. When the raven arrives in her black carriage driven by black horses, she already knows what she will find - the young man asleep on the bench, and no manner of assault on his person enough to awaken him. With a heavy sigh she takes a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a bottle of wine from the carriage and lays them on a black cloth beside the bench. She leans over and whispers in his ear; the food she leaves for him will never diminish, so matter how much he consumes, so that he will never again be without refreshment.

The raven removes a ring from her finger and places it on his; it curves around like a golden wing. She tells him that though he has failed her and her cause seems hopeless, if he is still willing to aid her then he must come to Stromberg, the golden castle. She pulls a long black feather from her cape, and tucks it into the band of his hat. Then she takes up her place in the carriage again and it drives off.

The young traveller awakes with a start, and seeing the ring and the food, realizes that she has come and gone again and he has been asleep. He is quite upset with himself, but as he thinks, flashes come to him of the raven bending over him, what she has told him, and a faint vision of the distant golden castle. He runs his fingers along the black feather she has left in his hat. Determined, he wraps up the food in the cloth, ties it, and sets off.

Far and wide the traveller journeys, finding nothing of the castle he has seen. One deep twilight, he sees a candle burning in the distance as he stumbles through a forest. Approaching the light, he sees a huge GIANT chopping wood outside a house. The giant is singing as he works, and though most of it seems to be nonsense, the young man hears a line about the castle of Stromberg. Without thinking, he dashes out into the clearing to ask the giant if he knows where the castle lies. The giant is perturbed at the sudden arrival of the little man, and says he is peckish from all the hard work and it's very convenient to have had a snack come right to him. The young man regrets his rashness, but pulls out the packet containing the never-ending bread, meat, and wine, giving it to the giant and explaining its magical properties. When the giant has eaten his fill and is in considerably better humor, he asks again after the castle of Stromberg. The giant admits that he has never seen the castle, it was only something which caught his attention in one of his old maps. However, seeing the young man's earnestness, he agrees to try to find the map in question.

The young man waits in an armchair which is far too large for him while the giant digs through his chaotic library, flinging maps left and right. He dozes a little, until a booming cry of success awakens him; at last the giant has located one which has the castle of Stromberg. The weary traveller is crushed by the news that the castle is still thousands of miles distant. By the time he has travelled that distance, if indeed he can, he laments, both he and the lady will be quite old.

Seeing the young man's distress, the giant takes pity and agrees to carry him to the castle. Such a distance, he says, is still nothing to one with strides as long as his, and he is full of energy thanks to the virtues of the unending meal.

Running and leaping through the countryside, it takes very little time for them to cross the distance, the traveller safely secured in a pack at the giant's shoulder. The giant lets out a yell and breaks into the song that the young man had heard him singing as his eyes spy the castle on the horizon, perched on a mountain which winks in the sunlight as if it were a mirror.

Suddenly, a sharp gust of wind snatches the young man's hat - and the feather the raven has given him - from his head. He immediately insists on being set down, though they are yet a ways from the castle. The giant becomes frustrated as the young man digs through the bramble in search of his hat, and says that since the distance is not so great now, that the traveller can just as well proceed on his own to the castle and it would be better if he arrived to rescue his maiden under his own power besides. The young man agrees and discharges the giant, who runs off back towards his house.

After some walking, the young man arrives at the foot of the mountain upon which the castle Stromberg rests. He peers up at its heights. Up close, the mountain gleams darkly like a black diamond, and he can see no path up its steep sides. He resolves himself to climb, and puts out a hand on the nearest rock, pulling himself up, but soon after cries out in pain and lets go. The mountain does not only look like glass, it cuts like it. After a moment considering his bloodied hand, he removes his belt and rips it in half, wrapping the cloth around each hand. Again he tries to climb the mountain, laboriously pulling himself up the rugged wreck of glass-like stone. He is forced to take a twisting path upwards, as he is met repeatedly by rock faces that angle out too sharply to climb; his progress upwards is much less than his progress across. Finally he is faced with a mirror-like incline, with no visible way up or around. As he swings himself outwards to look for some purchase above, his footing gives way and he is sent tumbling and sliding downwards.

Fortunately the incline slows his fall, and he sits up back at the bottom of the mountain, but not injured. He puts his head on his knees and despairs. Then, he hears the sound of a fight. Standing and walking around a small curve of the mountain, he sees three robbers, each of them fighting the others in a chaotic three-way brawl. They are all dressed in black in the fashion of thieves. The FIRST ROBBER is a huge man who seems nearly a giant; the SECOND ROBBER is a short but well-muscled man whose tunic clings to him tightly, and the THIRD ROBBER is a young woman with short red hair who makes up for in agility what she lacks in size or muscle.

For some while they are too engaged in their fight to notice his presence. At last he decides to try to break up the fight, as the first two seem to have come to some unspoken agreement and are ganging up on the woman. He shoves himself in between the woman and the next blow, and the robbers are so surprised by his sudden appearance that they stop in mid-swing. The young man asks what their debate is about, that they should resort to such brutal methods, and offers his assistance as a mediator. The robbers consider for a moment, and then proceed to explain. They have together raided a secret cave, wherein they found a robe which makes the wearer invisible, a stick which will open any door it strikes, and a horse which can fly. Each feels that as theirs had been the larger part in the successful raid, they should keep all three items.

The traveller ponders for some time, then tells them that none of their items are terribly useful anyway, and he has something much better which he will give them in trade and which they can split evenly without anyone's part being lesser. The robbers cannot believe their luck, and agree to make the trade. But, the young man says, how is he to know that their items are as described? He must see them before he will make the trade. The robbers bring out a gray horse, a simple-looking stick, and a cape of black cloth. He looks at them skeptically.

The robbers are set to encourage him, so they first give him the cloak; he tries it on and sees that he is indeed invisible. Then he says that the horse does not look as if it can fly, seeing as it has no wings, and the stick seems like any other stick. Determined to get their reward, the robbers seat him on the horse, which promptly becomes invisible as well, and give him the stick, telling him to ride up to the castle above and try the door.
Somewhat to the young man's surprise, the horse starts with a leap and trots in a circle just above the heads of the robbers, who can hear the sound of hooves but cannot grab a hold of the horse or its rider. Delighted, the young man laughs. He tells the robbers that he has what he wanted; and though it would serve them right to leave them there empty-handed, a deal is a deal so he tosses them the black cloth package containing the unending bread, meat, and wine. It will serve them as well and more honestly, he says, than stealing. Leaving the flabbergasted thieves behind him, the young traveller urges his new steed towards the top of the glass mountain.

Arriving at the massive door to the palace, he can see no doorknob or pull of any kind. However, one tap with the stick, and the door swings open without a sound.

Dismounting, he walks inside. The palace is draped in dark grays and other muted colors as if it is in mourning. He follows a wide hall straight to another pair of doors. There are guards here and there, but none see him because of the magic cloak. He stops at the doors, and taps very lightly with the stick; they open silently, just wide enough for him to slip in. Inside is the throne room. All of the windows are shuttered, and the room is dimly lit by torches. There, sitting on a throne, he sees the raven. She stares into space dejectedly. Next to her sits her mother, the queen, who is now elderly and is sound asleep. Scattered elsewhere about the throne room are the court members, who sleep or sit unmoving and stare. The young man goes to the raven, but something stops him just short of throwing off his cloak. Instead, he carefully removes the ring she has given him and drops it into the goblet of wine that sits at her side. The metal on metal rings, and she is startled from her trance. The young man smiles, and quickly slips away towards the doors.

The raven pulls the ring out of the goblet, and, recognizing it, exclaims that the man who will save her must be in the very palace! The guards come running in, and she orders that they search the castle. The guards who were stationed just inside the great door insist that no one passed by them, save for a wisp of wind that blew the door open a crack. At this, the raven leaps from her seat.

The main door of the palace is swung open, and there is the young traveller, now visible and seated astride his new horse. The raven, the queen, and the rest of the entourage which has followed them out cry aloud in delight. The moment the sunlight streaming from behind him strikes her, the spell is undone, and she is her human self, clad in golden robes. The young man dismounts and they embrace. She clasps him to her, and whispers in him that though he has returned her ring, she shall exchange it for her heart. (END)

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