When the birds came, they hid the sky. The streams were endless, a liquid black flow of flesh and feathers, all converging on the horizon. It was the sign we had been waiting for, but we watched for two whole days and nights before the choice was made.
Like all the other girls of my age, I was ready to leave, but when my name was called the sigh of relief from every other mouth was a warm wind, and I felt light-headed as it passed me.
Being chosen was a huge honour; this, I knew.
I returned home to collect my pack. I could bring one small loaf and one water-skin, as well as my tinderbox and a spare pair of sandals. The empty golden box weighed more than everything I owned, but it had to be carried, too.
‘Go quickly, by night,’ advised my father.
‘Take care where you place every footstep,’ muttered my brother, holding me close.
I bowed to my mother’s picture, asking her blessing, and left while my family slept.
The way was hard, and the further I went the colder it got. I shivered in my thin robes, walking hard to keep warm. For three nights and days I travelled, resting only during the brightest hours of the day. I kept away from the main paths, and spoke to nobody. I kept the pulsating, beating darkness in my sights, training my ears for the cries of the ravens.
Then, one day, I was forced to loosen some of my robe and place it over my face; my breaths became shallow and fast. The air smelled hot and foul and full, and my steps fumbled their way across the rocky ground. It was drawing near.
On the eighth morning, I found the first of them. Pecked almost clean, his armour still shining despite his violent end, I touched his bones and wished his soul free. The next lay a spear-length from him, and the next, and the next… Again and again, my own bones and blood aching with exhaustion as I bent and stooped and prayed.
The birds hissed, circling. I ignored them.
I rested amid the battlefield that night. All around me unquiet souls tossed and turned in their pained sleep, like children lost in a crowded place. I could sense their fear and confusion, and in my dreams they plucked at my clothes, their eyes hollow. Do you know the way? Where is the light? Bring us home, they whispered.
I am sworn to do it, I told them, but they didn’t seem to hear.
The birds attacked midway through the following day, beating me with their wings and snapping at me with their sharp, bloodied beaks. I did not have time to do anything besides cover my head as best I could and carry on, bending and praying and releasing, one by one by one. My arms ran with my own blood and my ears rang with raucous calls.
I hid beneath a shield that second night, the spirit of its former owner gallantly defending me against all comers despite the fact that he was no more substantial than a thought, now.
He was the first I released the following morning. I had no other means of thanking him.
In the deepest part of the battle, where bodies lay ten-deep, I found myself drowning in death. I had to continue, because there was no other choice. The birds screamed overhead, wheeling and striking like lightning, forcing me to take up the weapons of the fallen to stop them from adding me to the sacrificial pile.
Throughout it all I bent, and stooped, and prayed.
Finally, I found a body without armour, bearing a short and notched blade and a simple helm, and I knew. Weeping, I searched his wounds as I said the prayers of release, and finally I slid the ring from his finger.
The birds fell like battering rams as I took my tinderbox from my pack. I set the sacred fire as I had been taught, using the lost king’s hair and sinew as fuel, cleansing his ring in the flame before placing it carefully in the heavy golden box I’d carried all this way. Then, with a word, the flames leapt from man to man, and I ran in terror even though I was beyond their power.
The birds wailed in rage as the conflagration claimed their prize.
I limped into the village ten days later. My father had been watching for me since they’d seen the smoke rising, and he alone had not given up hope.
Three children had been born while I was away, and they were brought before me without delay. One slept throughout, another laughed without cease, and the third – a girl – grasped the ring with eager fingers when I showed it to her. She brought it to her tiny lips as though to kiss it.
She gazed into my eyes as I held her, frowning up at me as though trying to place where she’d seen me before. I smoothed her softly wrinkled brow and laid her down, hoping she would never remember.