An Unkindness of Ravens

A sample chapter from my new novel An Unkindness of Ravens", second of 'The Jabberwocky Book' series.

It was an egg day.

Robert Hewitt, the Ravenmaster of the Tower of London, had a fondness for egg days. It was a pleasure to chop up some of the hard boiled eggs, shells and all, and place them along with the raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits in the special dishes that had the seal of the Tower on them. He liked, too, the way his charges scrabbled and fought for the yolks; they were intelligent birds, no doubt about that. They knew it was egg day just as much as he did.

The Ravenmaster had a special liking for Rambler, the largest male, who had a single white feather on his right wing. Normally the ravens of the Tower were chosen for the completeness of their glossy black plumage; it was considered especially lucky – especially ravenous as it were. Their diet rich in oil and egg helped maintain the high sheen on their feathers. But somehow Rambler had sneaked in. Hewitt liked him for his cheekiness and the bright gleam in his eye. Ruthless, the largest female, was also one of his favourites. All the birds had names beginning with R, names chosen by Robert as just one more affinity he had with them. A harmless enough hobby, no doubt.

The loud, guttural gronk of a bird outside on the green alerted Robert to their presence. He picked up the dishes and stepped out onto the lawn.

Two of them were there already in the middle, waiting. Another two – Rambler and Reggie – hurried over, flapping their clipped wings. Robert set down the bowls and there was the usual scrap as the birds fought for the meat.

‘Now, Rambler, leave it!’ he called; the large male was snapping at Ruthless who had now arrived. He wondered, not for the first time, if Rambler and Ruthless were a mated pair. They certainly fought enough, he conceded, to be a married couple.

Other ravens arrived until eight were there – the full compliment. A crowd of visitors was also assembling as the feeding began. Robert, as usual, decided to give them a show. This was why he liked egg days. The English were proud of the Tower ravens; other visitors, tourists from around the world, just thought the idea quaint and a little eccentric. Robert didn’t care.

Taking a boiled egg from his pocket, he tossed it into the air. Two ravens – Rabelais and Richard III (so called because he had one foot shorter than the other) – instantly forgot the meat and attempted to catch the egg in mid-air. They both caught it, squawking as they cracked open the shell with their sharp beaks and tore the white apart to get at the yolk. That was the best part. A few children in the crowd laughed. Rabelais had smeared yellow yolk over his black beak. Robert tossed another egg, and this time it was Rambler who snapped it up, ignoring Ruthless as she ducked her head into the bloody meat in the bowl.

It was always a good show. Most of the people watching had come to the Tower to see the Crown Jewels, of course, but the feeding of the ravens was also popular. It was twenty minutes in Robert’s day that made his job so enjoyable. He cleared his throat preparatory to giving a short talk, as he always did, on the history of the ravens and their association with the tower.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘boys and girls. Welcome to the famous Tower of London ravens. Their history goes back to King Charles the Second, who requested that there always been ravens at the Tower…’

He stopped.

An eighth raven flapped down from the White Tower. It settled on the lawn, paused for a moment to eye the crowd, then stepped over to the bowls where the eight official ravens were guzzling.

‘Well, we have a visitor!’ said Robert. ‘This happens sometimes. There are only eight permanent residents here among the ravens – that one tossing the biscuit around is Raucous, by the way; gently Raucous, not like that you duffer! Wild ravens like this new one shouldn’t be here. Nothing much we can do. The legend is, of course, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then England shall fall.’ He paused for a second, watching the new arrival carefully to see how the other birds would react to it. ‘Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, the ravens are firmly a part of the Tower and aren’t likely to leave anytime soon.’

A second new arrival flapped in from somewhere. It was a big one, bigger even than Rambler. The two wild birds were, as yet, not trying to fight the others for the food, but it was possible a battle would break out if they tried to intervene.

‘We have had wild ravens at feeding time,’ said Robert. ‘It’s generally believed there were a lot more ravens back in the days of King Charles, before the smoke of London got too thick. Now, as I said…’

A boy in the crowd tugged on his mother’s arm, pointing at two more large ravens that settled on the lawn. Rambler finished his egg and eyed the new arrivals carefully. Beside him, Rooster, a fiery young bird who might well challenge Rambler for the leadership one day, fluffed his feathers as if in challenge to the new birds. But they were not yet interested in the food. Indeed, they were spreading out to stand at the edges of the green, closer to the crowd than the other ravens.

Where were they coming from? Robert glanced up at the sky. The low clouds had no black figures circling beneath them. But when he looked at the green again another few wild birds had settled.
Experimentally, Robert tossed an egg towards the biggest one. The egg landed on the green and bounced once, within two yards of the bird. It glanced at the egg for a second, shook its head as if to refuse the offer, still eyeing the standing crowd. A child stepped forward as if about to pet the bird, but its father pulled it back.

Yet more ravens were arriving. There were now more than fifteen, but the new birds were easy enough to distinguish from the residents, as they had as yet made no attempt to try for any of the food. Rambler paced up and down, flapping his wings, pecking at the ground, waddling slightly. Beside him, Rabelais was carefully taking snaps at biscuits, raising his head every so often to gaze at the new birds.

Yet more ravens: there had to be thirty at least now, all at the edges of the green. The crowd was growing curious. Robert looked about uncertainly – he had never experienced anything like this. Other species of birds often tried to muscle in at feeding time, of course, but never so many ravens as these.

‘Well, it certainly is an unusual crowd of ravens here today,’ announced Robert, suddenly feeling very hot in his uniform. ‘Word must be out about how well the Tower ravens are fed!’ A feeble joke, but it raised a few smiles in the audience. It was the best he could do on the spot, anyway.

Something large flapped overhead. The crowd looked up; so did Robert. A huge raven, almost the size of a fully grown duck, landed on the green. The other new ravens parted as it arrived, making room. And then came a flood of birds, the air suddenly filled with the flapping of wings and the calls of harsh voices. The feeding bowls were empty now, the Tower ravens crowded around them, Rambler in front as if in challenge. The youngest female, Relish, was standing in one of the dishes, a dark strip of meat hanging from her beak.

The crowd stepped back as the ravens kept arriving. Some of the children were getting scared. A hundred, two hundred birds now on the lawn between the White Tower and Wakefield Tower. People looked up as more birds descended. Robert swallowed nervously. A few Beefeaters were walking over from their posts to keep an eye on the people, attracted also by the huge flock of black birds.

‘Well, um, this is most unusual…’ said Robert. He felt helpless. What was he to do? The birds weren’t harming anything, certainly were not attacking the Tower birds. But what was this all about?

He stepped closer even as many in the audience started to leave. The giant raven looked directly at him – not side-on like a bird would normally do, but face-on, both huge eyes gleaming in the morning light. Robert stopped, stared back. The bird made its way through the press of its cousins, and stopped a yard away from the Ravenmaster.

‘Hello,’ said Robert doubtfully. ‘You’re a big one, aren’t you?’

Then he heard it. Over the cawing and mutter of the hundreds of birds that spread like a black canvas over the green of the lawn, Robert heard the voice in his head, a voice that could only have been the raven, impossible as that was:

‘Ours now,’ it said.