There was a sudden commotion as all of the birds flew up at once, cawing and cackling. But they didn't fly away, they swooped around us, driving Mia and me close together. They flew closer and closer, around and around, nearly slapping us with their wings, until all I could see was the black of their feathers. The wind picked up as they flew, whipping Mia's hair into my arm and making our scarves untangle, and when I was about to shout for them to stop, two enormous bird claws came from the whirlwind of black and picked us both up, wrapping all the way around our backs and bellies.
Then we were in the air. I know we were; I felt my feet dangling, and that unmistakable rushing-up feeling you get from roller-coasters. But all I could see were the ravens and Mia.
It was over as fast as it happened. one second, Mia and I were dangling in the air, the next, we were dropped onto dusty ground.
We groaned and picked ourselves up and looked around to find ourselves in the courtyard of an ancient castle.
The castle wasn't like the fairy-tale ones in the books Mia likes, with pretty turrets and towers with little flags on them. The castle of the Raven King looked like it had been abandoned; chunks of the black stone wall were crumbling apart, the only trees around were dried and dead, while the weeds and wild grasses were thriving, growing up to my belly, and when the ravens led us to the gate, we found it was closed, but broken down the middle with a crack large enough for us to squeeze through.
We passed a broken cart and wooden crates that were overgrown with weeds and half buried in the dirt. There were large piles of rocks around the edges of the courtyard, some of which were still recognizable as pieces of wall and tower, and some which were so worn down and weed-covered that it was hard to tell.
"Does anyone live here aside from the king?" I said.
"Just us," the raven said proudly. "We take excellent care of him."
The double doors leading inside the castle were huge, but they weren't as imposing as they probably were supposed to be, because only one door was in place, the other was hanging, partly twisted on one hinge. The hinge at the top was completely broken, and only the bottom one was keeping it up at all. Mia and I picked our way through the rubble, into the Raven King's hall.
Inside was dark. Very dark. There were stained glass windows high up on the walls, but they were so grimy and old that barely any light could make it through. There were chandeliers, up above on the domed ceiling, but they were lit by candles, and the light from them was dim as well. I could barely make out the shapes of wall hangings and at the far end of the room, a lifted platform with a large, dark, oddly lumpy chair on it that I knew was a throne.
The ravens flew in after us, sending up small gusts of wind with the beat of their wings. Mia coughed with the dust and dirt they kicked up.
"Your majesty!" they cawed, flying around the room.
"We've brought them!"
"We have your guests!"
'It's guests, look!"
Some of them landed on the carved bits of architecture where the domed ceiling met the walls, some of them landed on the chandeliers, but most of them fluttered around the throne.
"Hello?" I called.
Darkness moved on the throne, and I realized that there was a person there. The figure, draped in dark clothes and a loose hood, moved through the flock of ravens, and as it passed, some of the birds clung to its head, back, and shoulders. It was only when he moved that I realized it wasn't that the throne behind him was oddly shaped, it was that he had in his back enormous black wings.
I would have stayed by the safety of the exit, but Mia walked up to meet the figure. Reluctantly, I followed after her.
The figure was smaller than I expected. Still taller than us, but not taller than our mom was, even with the ravens all over him and the wings on his back. He hurried over to us, with his arms open, fast enough to jostle the birds.
"Hi," Mia said once she was close. "Are you the king?"
The Raven King pulled off his hood.
"Hello!" he said. "Welcome! I'm so happy to meet you!"
The King of Ravens had acne.
Not a lot, but spattered over his cheeks, and his voice cracked when he spoke. His hair was pitch black and stuck up around his head, like he'd just got out of bed, and his skin was sickly pale. His eyes were gray-- not the kind of almost-blue gray our mom had, but a dark, slate gray, and even though there was hardly any light in the room, they seemed to shine.
He shook each of our hands eagerly. "You must be Mia! I've heard so much about you. And you must be Jacob!"
"Yep, that's me."
I had to pull my arm away from him, he was holding on so tight.
"I've heard about how you embarrassed the crows and frightened them from your lands."
Lands? I thought. It was just one land. The front yard.
"How come you don't like crows?" Mia said.
"Territory disputes," the king said, waving his hand. "But that's not important. I'm so glad you were able to make it! I've so much planned-- are you hungry? Thirsty? Have you had a chance to eat yet? Lunch isn't for a while yet, but I can get you some snacks. . ."
I wondered what kind of snacks a bird boy would have in an empty castle. Birdseed?
"I'm good," I said.
"Me too," said Mia. "I had waffles."
"Nice," said the Raven King. "Let me know if you change your mind. Come on, let me give you a tour of the place! They didn't show you too much of the outside, did they?"
"No," I said, following after him. "Just the courtyard."
"Okay, good. Good! Oh, ah, this room's the great hall, by the way," he said just as we were leaving it. "And this is just a regular hall. Hallway, I mean. Oh, and down those stairs is the kitchens, but they're dark and full of spiders, so I don't go down there."
"Where do you cook your food, then?" said Mia.
He stopped walking and tilted his head at us. "Cook?"
Mia and I glanced at one another.
"Never mind," I said.
He led us down a massive hallway, one that must have been around the edge of the castle, because it had enormous, arched windows that let in dusty yellow light.
"How long have you lived here?" said Mia.
"My whole life," said the king. "Just me and the ravens."
"You don't have a mom or dad?"
I squeezed her arm, trying to get her to shut up, but she ignored me.
"No," said the king. I couldn't see his face, but his shoulders dropped a little. "They died when I was very young."
"I'm sorry," I said.
The king looked back as us, a small, sad smile on his face. "It's fine. But thank you. We're almost there."
At the end of the hall was a set of double doors. He pushed them open and said proudly, "This is the library!"
The library was the most well-lit area we'd seen so far, with a roaring fire in the fireplace and huge windows that were actually clean. The walls were lined with bookshelves full to bursting, and in the middle of the room were comfy looking couches, some short tables, and a few desks.
There was also a mound of blankets, all piled up and arranged in a sort of circle. It looked for all the world like a nest.
I stared at the shelves. More books than I'd ever seen before. The king's personal library was bigger than the school library-- it was bigger than the public library! There's even a rolly-ladder, I thought, dazed. Like on TV.
"This is the best room in the place," the king said. "Maybe second best. Depends on how much you like treasure."
"Treasure?" Mia said, perking up.
"It's so cool!" I said.
"You really think so?" The king looked relieved. "I mean, I like it, but I wasn't sure-- feel free to read anything you want," he said. "You can take stuff home to read, too, if you promise to bring it back when you're done."
"Do you have any with pictures?" Mia said.
"Yes indeed," he said. 'Would you like to see them?"
"Yes!" Mia said.
The king beamed and led her over to one of the wall-shelves.
"I had planned on going flying with you," the king said over his shoulder. "But if you want to stay and play in the library, that would be fun too!" He blushed a little, turning his pale skin pink around the nose and under the eyes. "I've never had anybody come over before, so whatever makes you happy is good with me."
"Flying?" Mia said hopefully.
What should we do?
-->[ Let's go flying!]
-->[ Let's hang out in the library!]