The challenge was to choose a title from the 10 that he had randomly generated, and write 2000 words. I chose the title "The Crow of Nine-World".
The Crow of Nine-World
The sun was barely cresting the horizon, and already larceny was the order of the day. Vrana perched on the creaking wooden crossbeams and glared out over the field, despising the burglars. They were the reason for her predicament. They were the reason that her life was comprised exclusively of purpose and entirely devoid of freedom.
While she was at it, she decided to go ahead and blame these particular thieves for stealing her chance at romance, though they were only indirectly at fault. Less directly to blame than Lhar, but blaming him felt like blaming a ghost for the fact that you were alive and it was not. It’s not the ghost’s fault that it’s dead.
If it weren’t for the inability of the lower worlds to keep to their own borders, Nine-World wouldn’t need a Crow. Some of the lower worlds didn’t even employ a Crow, because they had nothing worth stealing. Nine-World, on the other hand, was brimming with crops to steal, which kept Vrana both employed, and supremely busy. She was all that stood between wandering Harvesters and the jewels that dripped from the green stalks that peppered the fields and stretched across the horizon. Speaking of the jewels… she had been dawdling too long.
She sprang from the beam, stretching her arms out to either side and allowed gravity to pull her quickly toward the dry ground. An instant before impact, she slid seamlessly into her crow form. She flew low over the field, admiring the glint of the rubies in the sunlight. She squawked loudly as she neared the thieves, feeling a pang of loss when she saw that they had cut down several of the stalks at the base, clearly intending to carry the entire plant away rather than harvesting the jewels and leaving the plant to grow.
They weren’t at all surprised by her presence. Everyone knew that Nine-World employed a Crow, so thieves always came prepared… or at least thought they did. She landed lithely on one of the stalks and squawked again, the last sound of warning. She turned her head and studied them with one beady eye. Disapprovingly, she hoped.
They were young men, probably twenty years or less of age. One had the beginnings of a beard, while the others looked as though they had given facial hair their best try and weren’t capable of producing it quite yet. They were from Five-World; they each bore the five brand on their left temple. She wanted to pity them, but she didn’t have that luxury. She waited to see if common sense would descend magically upon them and encourage them to run.
No such luck.
The one with the half-beard produced a large knife from behind his back and pointed it at her.
“Polly want a cracker?” he asked menacingly, stepping toward her as though he expected her to parry and provide him with a proper duel. Which would be a ridiculous thing to assume, given that she lacked opposable thumbs when she had wings, and that fencing is hardly a sport when one wields a butcher knife.
Apparently it hadn’t occurred to these bright young lads that her peripheral vision would be quite enhanced in her bird form. Whatever they were planning that involved the steel cage and the cloth bag that they brandished was doomed to fail before it began. She waited until the last second before rocketing away from the stalk, allowing them to momentarily feel the flush of possible victory before their hands closed around the empty air.
By the time she hand landed among the stalks between them and the edge of the field, she had returned to her human form, and was grasping her wooden staff in both hands. The wind blew strands of her black hair across her face, but she didn’t blink.
“Ho, boys! Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Lady Crow,” the semi-bearded boy drawled, a menacing grin stretching his pink cheeks.
“You should leave while you still have a chance,” Vrana informed him. “Jewels aren’t worth dying over.” She caught the eyes of the other two before adding, “Go home, boys. Leave the jewels be.”
“We ain’t come for the jewels,” one of the non-bearded boys grinned. He had blonde hair that fell in his eyes, undermining his attempt at bravery. All three guffawed, as though they are sharing a secret joke.
“We came for you,” the semi-bearded boy clarified.
“Yes, thank you. I put that together,” Vrana answered, sorely tempted to roll her eyes. Apparently they were under the impression that they were the first ones to have this idea. There was a price on her head across all of the lower worlds, that was just part of the job. Get rid of the Crow of Nine-World and you could carry the jewels out in droves. Someone came to kill her an average of once a week. Three or four times, if it was busy week, or if she had sent a survivor home unharmed to tell their tale.
“You should come with us while you still have the chance,” he informed her, parroting her words back to her through his stained teeth.
“I’m afraid I have other plans,” she said politely. She stood in ready stance, her legs apart, knees bent, her black tunic waving slightly in the breeze. “Actually, I do have a rather full schedule today, so if we could get on with it…”
They should have come at her all at once. That would have been their best chance for victory, certainly, but nobody ever thought that she merited a full blown attack. She didn’t come off as particularly formidable; she was an average height, and quite slender. Combine that with the fact that she was a woman, and that she generally carried only a wooden staff, and you could practically guarantee that men would attempt a one on one combat that they were sure they could win.
They were always drastically mistaken.
She had pitched the semi-bearded boy over the edge of the field before his comrades even moved. His expression as he fell was a combination of surprise and hatred, which she had seen painted on a thousand faces. He plummeted toward Eight-World, gravity yanking him past the wooden ladder that stretched between her world and the next with all of its considerable force.
The two non-bearded boys, brothers, she decided, attempted a coordinated attack. She waited until the last moment before diving out of the way, rolling up to her feet a yard away. That maneuver put them too close to the edge to recover, and only a few wallops later they found themselves becoming acquainted with gravity and its mighty pull.
She sat on the edge of the field and hung her legs over the edge, watching them fall from between her bare feet. They would probably survive. The lower worlds had nets set out on their sides to catch things that fell from the worlds above them. They were intended more to catch valuables or trash that could be salvaged, but they caught trash of the human variety as well. They’d be back, if they survived. They always came back.
She gathered the stalks they had cut and carried them through the field and back to the barn that acted as her perch. She lay them gingerly on the dusty floor and plucked the sprouting rubies from between the leaves. She placed the jewels in a basket and dropped the stalks in the burn pile. She glanced through the little round window in the eaves and saw that the sun was starting its trip toward the lower worlds, leaving darkness to cover Nine-World first, before descending on the worlds below. She wondered if the boys had finished falling yet.
“Busy day?” Sova’s gruff voice cut through her thoughts, startling her. She looked up from her position cross legged on the floor. Sova was the Owl of Nine-World. He guarded Nine-World in the absence of the daylight. He also harbored an inexplicable love for her that she pretended to know nothing about.
“Not really. Three today. They were from Five-World.”
“Been a lot of Five-Worlders lately,” he remarked, offering her a hand and yanking her to her feet.
“I noticed that. I wonder what’s going on down there.”
“Maybe word finally got around that Nine-World’s hired themselves a lovely Lady Crow,” he teased, a smile wrinkling the skin around his startling amber eyes.
“Now that you mention it, these particular young men did come with a cage in hand. Said something about being here for me. Though they still cut the stalks, so I’d guess I was more of a bonus.” Her words brought an instant darkness across Sova’s angular face. He ran a hand through his scruffy brown hair, leaving it sticking up oddly in places.
“I should be here with you during the day,” he proclaimed instantly. “I don’t mind doing a couple of extra shifts until we’re sure that you’re safe.”
“While that is a very sweet gesture, you might notice that I’m still here, and they are decidedly not,” she pointed out. “Don’t worry about me. I’m good at my job. ” She patted his arm awkwardly and walked quickly out of the barn, before he could say anything else.
Vrana let out a gusty sigh before she leapt from the rafters. The sun was hardly up, and already she could see a head bobbing at the top of the ladder. She didn’t want to risk losing any stalks today; she was going to nip this incursion in the bud.
She dropped from the air and into human form in one fell swoop. She wasn’t playing games today. As she finally got a good look at the intruder making his way into her fields, she choked.
“Lhar?” she squeaked, hardly believing that it was possible. Lhar had left more than a year ago, his Harvesting work taking him elsewhere. She had wanted him to stay, but he couldn’t make a living on Nine-World any longer. So he’d gone, and taken the better part of her heart with him.
“Hi V,” he whispered warmly, opening his arms. She ran to him immediately, throwing her arms around his neck.
“What are you doing here?” she breathed, letting go and stepping back to study him. He had grown in his time away. His hair was long now, too. It swept across his forehead and curled around his neck.
“I came for you, like I promised I would,” he grinned, reaching for her hands. “I made something of myself. We can finally be together. You just have to say yes.” Her heart soared into her throat. She hadn’t even dared to dream of this day. Of Lhar returning for her.
“Say yes to what?” she asked, reaching for his calloused hands. They felt warm and soft against hers.
“You aren’t going to like it,” he cautioned her. He dropped her left hand and produced a small silver cage from behind his back.
“You’re right. I don’t like it,” she answered instantly.
“Just hear me out,” he pleaded. “We have to pretend that someone captured you to get you away from here. There’s a price out on you, did you know that? It’ll be perfectly believable that someone came here and finally caught you. Once I get you away from Nine-World, I will set you free and we can finally have the life you always wanted.” He gripped her hand hard. “Please, V. This is what we wanted.”
She was sorely, sorely tempted. Lhar had returned for her. All of her dreaming… it could all come true. A life away from here. A life where she didn’t have to be just a Crow. She gripped his hand and let her mind drift through the possibilities. It would be so easy. So easy to run away.
All except a nagging feeling in the back of her mind. Something felt… wrong. She took stock of their exchange. He seemed normal. She studied his body; he looked as swoon-inducingly handsome as always. So what was it that felt…
His hands, her mind whispered. He doesn’t have Harvester callouses on his hands. She glanced up and saw that he was watching her with a glint in his eye. You’re being ridiculous, she snapped at the voice in her head. This is Lhar. He loves me. He’s offering me everything I have ever wanted. She opened her mouth to say yes, yes, a thousand times yes she would go with him.
But just as her lips parted, the wind picked up ever so slightly, ruffling the hair across his forehead. And there it was, hidden in the strands of his hairline. The number five, branded clear as day.
He lunged, and she parried.
He lunged, and she parried.