THE RAVENS WATCH
Roscommon Ireland, 2025
They say that Ravens are creatures of death. That if you ever find yourself in the presence of one of these majestic birds, consider yourself warned.
Death is coming.
I mean, it could just be a saying. We just left a city full of death and I didn’t see ravens anywhere. But as we arrive here, at this countryside manor in the middle of nowhere, with miles of open fields and forests in every direction, what’s the first thing I see?
A massive black raven.
Its wings tuck into its side, and it stares down at us from atop the manor’s tallest tower. If it wasn’t for those jet black feathers, I’d guess it was an eagle or a hawk.
So rigid and still, you‘d almost think it was a statue, or one of those gargoyle things. Those same people that say that stuff about ravens, also say people put gargoyles on their homes to scare off evil spirits. Let’s hope this raven is more gargoyle than raven.
Peering down at us from the second floor terrace he stretches his wings, leans forward and screeches, like a giant dragon ready to rein fire down upon us. It’s awesome, and I’ll be honest - kind of terrifying.
My little sister Charlotte is mesmerized. As she creeps toward him, he follows her every move, shuffling along his perch. Suddenly, he leaps from the terrace and on powerful wingbeats, soars into the sky.
We follow him, watching as he circles us once, then settles in the grass beside the cobbled driveway. He folds his wings into his side and shivers, like an old man who’s just stepped in from the rain. With his head bobbing up and down, and croaking a steady rhythmic pattern, he hops towards Charlotte. She crouches down and holds out cupped hands, inviting him to her.
“Uh, Char? What are you doing?”
“It's okay. He's friendly,” she replies.
Her hand brushes his wing and the raven stands tall, rising to meet her gentle touch. Something very peculiar is happening here. Weird, but in a magical and familiar kind of way. When she moves forward and scoops him into her arms, he doesn't even squirm.
“He likes you.” I say.
She cradles the raven, like a mother with a baby and he nestles into her chest purring like a kitten. I expect she’s going to want to keep him now.
But when she says, “He wants you.” It catches me off guard. I snort. That sounds crazy. Maybe she’s trying to be cute, except she doesn’t laugh at all. In fact, her face has almost no emotion.
“Quit playing around.” I say, my smirk fading.
“He said he’s been looking for you for a long time.”
She speaks so matter-of-factly, I start to worry that something is wrong with her.
“He said he's come for you,” she replies.
“Wait. Did you say he said? C’mon Charlotte, knock it off.”
“Henry, I’m not joking.” She handles him like they’ve been together forever. “Here,” she says, and passes him to me. “His name is Hardey.”
“Um...Okay?” I say, and take him to appease her. But my hands are trembling. He’s heavier than I expect, and as he shuffles up my arm, his cold, rough talons press into my skin.
In his eyes, a green fog swirls and when I try to break away, I can’t. Frozen, a force I can’t describe has me locked in place. The mist thickens, and his eyes change from raven black to the same green as mine. Lost in the moment, I hardly notice his razor-sharp talons digging into my arm.
As they pierce my skin, pain shoots through my body like a lightning strike on a weather vane. Blood oozes from the wounds, pooling under my forearm, but I stay locked in with him.
He moves first, snapping the trance. His wings stretch wide and he unleashes a scream so loud and terrifying, I stumble backward. My foot catches the backpack behind me and I fall to the ground, “Ow!” I shout. I’ve jammed my elbow on the stones below.
Charlotte rushes to my side, “Henry, are you okay?”
I lift my arm and together, we stare at the four diamond shaped puncture wounds the raven left on me. One from each of his talons. In the air above, he’s all over the place, flipping, twisting and twirling before settling back on his rooftop post.
“He said you’ve been claimed,” says Charlotte.
“What? What does that mean?”
“He says you’re a part of the Raven’s Watch now and that we've been summoned.”
“Raven’s Watch? Summoned? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t know what it means, but that’s what he said.”
“Oh, this is crazy,” I say, checking out the scrape on my elbow. I’ve only been here five minutes and already I’m bleeding all over the place. The whole thing is like something from a storybook. No way this happens in real life.
The wooden doors of the manor groan, and a giant of a man steps out and upon seeing us on the ground, rushes over.
“Hey, are you alright?” One hand pulls me up, while the other rests on my back, holding me steady. “You’re bleeding. Let me get you...”
“It’s okay, I’m fine. I just fell.”
Our eyes meet and in that moment of silence, we size each other up.
Well, not literally. Because he towers over me. If I’m five-nine, he’s got to be like, six-seven. The dusty green jacket and gray t-shirt does little to conceal his massive shoulders. At least twice as wide as mine, he’s more linebacker than caretaker. He could easily play professional football for the Lions or Bears.
But there is a calm about him. Even though he’s big and kind of scary, that hollow, sinking feeling in my stomach disappears right away, and something in my gut tells me we’re in good hands. I mean, my parents sent us to him, so he has to be okay. Right?
“Alright, well Hello Halsteads, I’m Prosper.” he says.
I’m glad he doesn’t push me about the blood on my arm. What would I say anyway?
“Henry,” I reply, pulling a strand of Charlotte’s curly, blond hair from her face and tucking it behind her ear. “This is Charlotte.” She forces a smile, but slides in behind me.
“Nice to meet you both. Come, let me show you around.” he says, picking up our bags.
As he turns, Charlotte gives me her trademark, look. It’s the one she gives me when she’s nervous and needs me to tell her everything is going to be okay. It’s the same one she gave me as we left our home. The city became too dangerous and our parents made the decision to move us before something bad happened. So they sent us on ahead of them.
I put my arm around her and we follow Prosper inside. He leads us on a tour of the old Victorian estate. The wounds are throbbing, and blood has begun to seep through my sleeve. I try to hide it as best I can. If Prosper’s noticed, he’s choosing not to say anything, which is fine by me.
Heavy wooden I-beams run from one end of the manor to the other. Large stone fireplaces and rounded archways disappear into the knotty oak floor. Paintings cover the walls in almost every room.
I love old paintings, so I stop to examine as many as I can. One of my favorites is a Renoir and another is a famous one of water lilies by Monet. I’m sure they’re copies, because...well, first of all, they’d be like a trillion dollars and second, because I’m pretty sure they’re all locked away in a vault somewhere.
I pass a print of Van Gogh’s, Starry Night and it looks so real. I lean in. The paint is thick, almost a full inch. How did they get a print to do that? Way cool.
Prosper sets our bags at the foot of the stairs to the upper level, then shows us to the dining room.
“I hope you’re hungry. I think you are going to love what I’ve made.”
Charlotte and I exchange a nervous glance. Trust doesn’t come easy anymore, but Dad said Prosper is a good man, and one of his best friends. I’ve never seen him before, but that doesn’t matter. If my Dad says he’s solid, then I believe him.
The flicker of the flame-lit chandelier hanging above the dining room table dances across the gallery wall on one of the room’s burgundy walls. There’s a copy of the Mona Lisa - not sure why they’d make such a small print. It’s like the size of a piece of paper. I’d get that one as big as I could.
There’s another portrait of a young kid that catches my eye. He actually looks like me, a little. We both have that dirty blond hair, but I’d never side part mine like that. After Mom started cutting my hair, style pretty much went out the window. My eyes are narrower than his, too.
Okay, so maybe we’re not all that alike, but we do both have the same sharp chin and jawline. Mom always said I had the bone structure of Brad Pitt. She said he was the only one my Dad should be worried about. I don’t think she was serious.
Charlotte sits across from me. It’s been quite a day. Before we left, my Dad pulled me aside and told me to look after her at all costs. To never let her out of my sight. My parents are always throwing around the ‘responsibility’ word, which I get because Galway is a dangerous place. People are sick and desperate. It’s just that I wish I had some time to myself. A chance to hang with my friends without Charlotte tagging along. I love her to death, but sometimes a guy needs his space too.
With her arms crossing her chest and pressed against her sides, her eyes are glazed over.
People underestimate her all the time. Maybe it’s because she’s smaller than your average ten year old. They think she's this young, naïve little girl, but she's not. She's smart. Really smart. Beneath her curly blond hair and crystal blue eyes is a brilliant mind. Early on, she was identified as gifted, and she's mature way beyond her years.
The door swings open, and Prosper emerges, holding a tray with three plates. We get our first glimpse of the meal, and my stomach drops. Each plate is piled high with creamy mashed potatoes, glistening steak and steaming green and orange vegetables. I haven’t seen food like this in a really long time.
“Here you go.” The plates clink against the wooden table as they’re set in front of us, “Bon Appetit.”
Charlotte and I look at each other. We know better.
Prosper takes his place at the head of the table. He picks up his fork, and is about to begin. We haven’t moved. “Ah, you guys are worried about the Madness, huh?”
“We don’t mean to be rude.” I say. “But our parents always tell us we should never eat food that was grown in the ground.”
“That’s good advice. But we grow our food inside, from our own greenhouses, using a special soil we’ve created and the animals only eat the food we give them. I promise you, this food is clean.” He reaches over and stabs a piece of carrot from my plate, then stuffs it in his mouth.
He takes a few bites, but then stops. His eyes widen, and he starts coughing. And coughing. He pounds the table, then jumps up from his seat with such force that his chair topples backwards.
I stand, but I don’t know what to do. What if this is how the madness starts? I’ve never actually seen someone get it before. If it is, what do we do? Run? My eyes dart back and forth between him and Charlotte. I’m about to tell her to run, when he stops coughing, then laughs. “See? All good.”
My eyes widen and my body deflates. I shake my head, smiling. “Not funny!” I say, and look over at Charlotte who’s laughing hysterically. “Don’t ever do that again!”
It’s so nice to see her laugh like that, so I let my guard down and join in. It’s the ice breaker we needed.
Yeah, Prosper is alright.
The plain food we ate at home was tasteless and boring. Seeing food like this makes my mouth water, but the smell! Peppered steak, creamy potatoes and crisp vegetables? It’s more than I can handle. The first bite is amazing. My taste buds haven’t experience flavor like this in…well, maybe forever. Charlotte devours hers, only taking a break to come up for air. Maybe she thinks someone is going to take it away.
I enjoy the meal, though my focus is on the raven. It could just be that some crazy bird attacked me, but I don’t think so. Something happened out there.
Prosper’s face crinkles and he rubs his forehead. To me, he seems stressed. “I understand how tough the not knowing is for you guys, being away from your parents and all, but they believed this was best for you.”
“They'll be here soon, right?” I ask.
He swallows a scoop of mashed potatoes and nods, waiting until his mouth is empty to answer, “Right.”
My arm is still throbbing, and the puncture wounds have bled all the way through my shirt. I sway back and forth. The room is spinning. I blink a few times, to clear the layer of fog covering my eyes. Using the table napkin, I lay it over my forearm and press down.
“You okay?” asks Prosper.
“Yeah...yeah, I’m fine.” I say. I don’t want him to ask me about the marks. “So are you going to stay with us once our parents arrive?”
“No, I'm here until they arrive and then I’ve got to go.”
“Where will you go?”
“Back to the Empire City.”
“I’ve heard my Dad talk about Empire City. Where is it?”
He stares out from the dining room window, like he’s searching for the right words. “It’s north of here, several days away..”
I bite. “Why are you going there?”
“Well, the Emperor has somehow restored power.”
“Really? How did he do that?” I ask, but the more obvious question should be, and why aren't we going again?”
Prosper's gaze drops and he pushes the potatoes around his plate. He’s struggling with something. “I don't know. That’s what we’re hoping to find out.” he replies.
Charlotte asks the question I should have a second ago. “So, are we going too?”
“Well, that'll be up to your parents to decide. Personally, I'd keep you here.” His voice deepens. “I'm not sure Empire City is a place for kids.”
He returns to his food with such enthusiasm, I guess he doesn’t want to explain what that means. Anyway, whatever our parents decide will be good enough for me.
We finish eating and clear the table. Charlotte and I wander into the large study, where a roaring fire warms our cheeks and lights the room. Shelves of old books cover the walls. Past the rows and rows of blue and red-spined encyclopaedias, I find what I’m looking for and pull it from the shelf.
It’s a yellowed, old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S Lewis. After the power went out and I lost video games, reading and painting were two of my favorite things to do. I fan the pages, and its musty smell brings back so many memories. I remember nights spent curled up in my closet with a pillow and blanket, reading it over and over until the candle burnt out. I’d dream that my closet opened to a world of kings, queens and talking animals. I finger the four circular blood stains on my sleeve.
Charlotte sits cross-legged on the white sofa facing the fire, her arms wrapped around a pink floral cushion.
“Remember this book?” I ask.
She looks up and smiles. “Yes! You read it so much, the words started to rub off the page.” Her quirky giggle is music to my ears.
“Did you bring that beat up, old copy of Anne of Green Gables with you?” I tease. Anne was a gift from our mother and her favorite book.
“Of course,” she replies with a snort, “Duh, you know I don't go anywhere without it.”
I laugh. “Oh, I know.”
I tuck the book back on the shelf and wander to the window behind the love seat. In comparison to home, the countryside is dark - really dark. Though the city lost its power some time ago, an orange glow still rises from its center. Out here, the light of the full moon covers the estate in a cool blue blanket. The silhouette of the treetops blend into the night sky.
“That raven didn't really talk to you did he? You were kidding right?”
“No Henry, I wasn't.” She turns to face me. “For real, he did. I could hear his voice in my head.”
I lean against the window frame and stare out into the darkness, trying to wrap my head around it all. It’s just so...weird. I’m just about to ask what his voice sounds like when a flash of light from the forest catches my eye. It flickers a few times, then disappears.
My eyes narrow.
Charlotte kneels on the sofa. Her elbows rest on the top of the backside. “What is it?” she asks.
“Don't know. I think there’s something out there.”
She steps around the couch and stands beside me. Three separate flickering lights, one after another, race through the trees like a fishing lure weaving its way through the water. A rumbling sound rattles the windowpane. I lean in, listening.
The noise reminds me of the rhythmic pounding horses make as they gallop, but it couldn't be horses...could it? I mean, where would they be coming from? We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and it can’t be our parents, they know better than to travel at night.
Something is coming. “We should get Pros-”
Behind us, the heavy wooden door flies open, forcing the handle through the wall behind. Bits of drywall litter the floor beneath it. Prosper stands in the doorway, chest heaving, eyes wide. Everything about him screams panic.
His voice trembles. “We've got to go.”
Charlotte turns, and I grab her hand.
“This way,” he says, holding the door open. As I pass by, the fear in his eyes sends my emotions into a tailspin.
“What's going on?” I ask.
“They've found us. We need to get you out of here.”
“Found us? Who?”
“No time to explain. Follow me.”
He hands us our backpacks and leads us through the kitchen to the walk-in pantry. Once we’re in, he closes the door and flips the deadbolt. Charlotte squeezes my hand, and presses into me. She’s trembling.
“It’s okay,” I say. “We're okay.”
The sound of crashing glass and shrill, high-pitched screams coming from the other side of the door raises the hair on my arms and neck. Shivers spike all over my body. Whatever it is, it sounds like death. Like someone is dying an awful, painful death. Another scream follows. And then another.
Prosper fires cereal boxes and pasta cans from the shelves like a hurricane whipping through a small town. With Charlotte in front of me and my arms across her chest, my eyes never leave the sliver of light between the bottom of the door and the tiled floor. Charlotte shudders and squeezes tighter. Her tiny body trembles against mine. “Shh..hold it together.” I whisper.
A dark shadow crosses the doorway and I reach out and tap Prosper on the shoulder. Sweat glistens from his forehead, and when our eyes meet, I know we’re in trouble. As I point to the floor, another shadow passes. He holds his finger to his lips. We watch in silence as another follows close behind.
Standing in the pantry, frozen, we hold our breath. I focus on their wretched sound. Hoping they’ll think we’re not here, and leave. Prosper quietly sets the final boxes on the floor, then pulls the wire racks from the wall, fasteners and all. Tiny screws skid across the tiles. Hands on the wall, shoulder width apart, he leans forward and pushes with all his might.
At first I don't get it, but when the wall inches backward, I understand. As it scrapes against the ground, I fear the noise will draw the attention of the predators outside. I stare at the floor, praying the shadows won't return.
But my prayers aren’t answered. Darkness blankets the bottom of the door and they start pounding on it.
“Prosper!” He stops pushing and turns. “They’re coming!”
“Quick. Help me!”
I let go of Charlotte and join him on the wall. The stone slab slides back and clicks into place with a loud thud. High-pitched screeches ring out, and the pantry door shakes. Creaking and groaning, it holds its ground as one after another they hurl themselves at it.
On either side of the marble slab, a tiny crevice begins to emerge. “Go!” yells Prosper. “This tunnel will take you beneath the estate and into the forest. Get as far away from here as you can!”
“Wait, where do we go?”
“I'm sorry. I don't know how they knew you were here. Those are wraiths, and if they get a hold of you, we're all done for.”
“What’s a wraith?” I ask. Prosper’s eyes sharpen and he stares straight into my soul. “The the most vile and wretched creatures you’ll ever meet.”
“Wait, what about our parents? Aren’t they going to show up here?”
The sound of screws rattling on the ground is followed by another loud thump on the door.
“I...I don't know,” he says. “You have to go, now!”
Charlotte goes first, and I follow while Prosper trails behind. Once on the other side, I drop my bag and help him push the wall back. But no sooner do we start, does the pantry door give way and three wraiths crash to the floor.
“Hurry!” he yells.
I lean in once more, and as the wall slides forward, I catch a glimpse of them. Ragged black robes blanket the grim creatures, their faces shrouded beneath deep hoods. Like bats trapped in a small room, they’re crazy, running from one side to the other like maniacs. I jump back as one charges the narrowing space between the wall and the stone. Its spiny hand stretches forward, reaching for the ever-shrinking gap. Small jagged teeth run all the way up the back of its hand, and what I first thought were fingers, are actually razor sharp claws.
“Keep pushing!” yells Prosper.
I’m trying my best, but my feet keep sliding. I dig in, and with one final push, the wall scrapes closed. The sickening sound of bones being crushed between two massive slabs of stone twists my stomach. Its hand disintegrates and the wraith lets out a shriek that pains my ears and shivers my spine. It’s curved claw drops to the sandy ground below me and I reach down and pick it up.
Now closed, Prosper leans back and straightens his legs to brace the wall. “You need to go,” he says between breaths and pulls a white rag from his pocket.
“Aren't you coming?” I ask. “You can't hold them by yourself!”
“It's okay. They won't have enough time to move the wall. I’m going to light this place up. We can’t stay here now. They know where you are. More will be coming.” He unrolls the rag, revealing a lighter and a tiny bottle of clear liquid. “They'll die before they can get to me. Fire is their weakness, they burn like paper.”
“But, where do we go?” I ask again.
“Run. Deep into the forest. I'll catch up with you.”
“Alright,” I say, breathless, “and thank you...for everything.”
We start down the path, but Prosper calls us back. “If something happens, and we don't meet again, you have to get to Empire City, but don’t...” His words are cut short by the screeching cries as the wraiths pound the other side of the stone. His feet start to slip. He’s struggling to hold the wraiths back. “Just... just be careful. Trust no one.”
Using the lighter, he ignites the rag, then tosses it through the tiny crevice. Shrieking cries follow as the fire catches, outlining the wall with a fiery orange glow. With a strength I’ve never seen before, he digs into the ground, slowing the wraiths trapped in the fiery room. From either side, long bony fingers claw the slab, trying to reach him.
“Henry, please...” Charlotte begs.
“Are you sure you're going to be okay?” I ask.
“I'll be fine, now, go!”
The fire has grown and within seconds, the wraiths will be consumed in flames, so we do as he says and run. Small torches light the way out and we burst through a tiny grass covered opening, spilling into the darkness. Running for the forest as fast as we can, we break the tree line and search for a place to hide.
A tangled mess of twisting branches and shrubs provides cover and we get our first glimpse of the burning manor. Clouds of gray smoke and vibrant orange flames billow from every crack and crevice. Huddled together, I get the awful feeling that we are never going to see Prosper, or our parents again.