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Chapter One

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Tess crouches on the riverbank, the icy water numbs her fingers, but she continues to scrub, certain she can still smell the hag's blood on her skin.

A crow calls out a warning from the grey sky above. Tess slips her rucksack over her shoulders, then runs up the tree covered slope, grabbing her clothes, hanging from a nearby branch. She scrambles to the summit and finds a rocky mound to hide behind. Goosebumps pepper her bare skin as she steps into her tunic, it's edges frayed and rough.

Wings flap close to her head. “My lady, make haste—oh! Beg pardon!”

Tess pulls her arms through the scratchy fabric and says, “Not worth fretting about, Sebastian.” She fastens the buckle of her cloak, then pulls the hood over her wet and tangled hair. “I'm only a kitchen girl, after all.”

The crow hops down from the rock, and tilts it's head, staring at her with it's black beady eyes. “A kitchen girl who just defeated the Witch of Wenlock,” he says.

She smiles at the admiration in his voice, then says, “Because you told me the soft spot behind her ear was the only place my dagger would penetrate.” She sighs heavily, a few months ago she only handled cast iron frying pans.

He turns a leaf over with his beak, a bug is caught and swallowed in one swift manoeuvre. He flies up and lands on her shoulder, nuzzling her neck, “It is my duty to protect the soul who has saved my life.”

“Chucking a rolling pin at feral cat is hardly heroics. If there's any debt in this relationship, it's on my side.” Tess strokes the soft feathers under his chin, “You're leading me to my true love.”

“So you tell me every day.” He stiffens, then scans the horizon. “Perhaps a chat about love later since we're about to be killed by barbarian dwarfs.”

Tess feels the color drain from her face. Blood thirsty tales she heard an orphan come back to her vividly. “Go!” she screams. “I'll follow you.”

“Wise choice, my lady,” Sebastian caws, flying into the sky.

Tess runs into the forest, her eyes trained on the branches ahead. The crow leads her through twisting paths and under painful brambles, but the grunts of her pursuers never fades—they scream for her skin and bones.

Tiny hands pull the hem of her cloak. Her chest slams into the hard ground, a dirty knife comes quickly from the corner of her eye. Black wings blur through the air. Behind her, a dwarf howls, holding a hand to his face. Tess sees blood trickle down his dirty beard.

Gnarled fingers wrench her hood back. Sebastian swoops in again. “My lady, the jar!” he urges, his beak is dripping red. “Use it now!”

From her rucksack, Tess pulls out a jar. A green smoke oozes to the ground, enveloping the slavering mob. The dwarfs stagger and clutch their throats, a haunting gurgling fills the air.

Tess runs, not daring to look behind. She follows the crow until at last he rests on stone pillar, draped in moss. A fog has shrouded the area in a hazy gauze. She flops to her knees, trying to catch her breath. Her legs are scrapped and bruised, her fingers caked with mud.

“Well, it's good to know that old hag died for a reason,” Sebastian says. “I confess it was a rumor from an uncouth fairy that I based my hypothesis on. However, after that lively episode, I declare with great certainty that a witch's dying breath can take down an army of dwarfs.”

Tess sits back and studies her battered hands, then brings them up to her face. “We're never going to find him are we?” she cries.

Sebastian drops his head, then hops over and gently perches on her knee. “My lady, why do you doubt yourself? We have come so far.”

She sniffs and pushes the hair out of her eyes, “I don't know how much more I can take. The only reason I'm still alive is because of you.”

“I repeat the same pledge,” he lovingly nips her hand. “It was a lucky morning for both of us when you decided to runaway from the castle. You prevented me from being that mangy cat's breakfast and I, in turn, am leading you to the Castle of Orion.”

She shakes her head, “I'm nothing but a kitchen girl. What do I know of battling dragons?”

He lifts his head and lets out a great caw of a laughter, “The creatures you have defeated on this quest, my lady would have made the dearly departed Witch of Wenlock soil her already disgusting undergarments. And while we're on the topic, from what I saw by riverbank, you're hardly a girl.”

Even though Tess is sixteen, the crow's boldness makes her blush, “Sebastian!”

He cocks his head, and shrugs a black wing, “If I can value the beauty of the sunrise, I can surely appreciate the way the water droplets trail down your figure.”

Tess shifts on the ground, unsure where to look. “You're a terrible tease,” she finally says. “That beak is going to get you into trouble some day.”

He pauses a moment, considering her comment, then says, “It's only logical, my lady. If I had never seen a sunrise, I would still think you are beautiful, and vice versa. Take one away, and the other remains just as majestic. There are no shades of grey in life, only black and white.”

He flies into the forest and returns with a clump of twigs. “It's not an olive branch, my lady,” he says. “Only supper.”

“Blueberries!” She ravenously finishes his offering in seconds. He leads her to the picking spot where they gorge on the plump fruit and finish her canteen of water.

When they return to the spot by the stone post, the fog has lifted. Tess stares dumbfounded across the chasm in front of them. Beyond a splintered drawbridge, towers a crumbling castle. Corpses in scorched armour litter the steaming moat.

“Oh my,” Sebastian says. “No wonder the dwarfs came upon us so quickly. I had no idea we were this close.”

“The Castle of Orion, I presume?” Tess says, her voice small and uncertain.

Sebastian rests on her shoulder, his beak tenderly nips her ear, “Do you really love him?”

“Every day since he kissed me three years ago.” She closes her eyes, picturing his mischievous grin, and lean body as he stole into the kitchen that afternoon. He was hiding from his astrology tutor, he'd told her. They shared sweet rolls she'd prepared for the King's lunch. He made her laugh, and then said her she was pretty. Before he'd left, he kissed her—his lips tasted like cinnamon.

Sebastian flies up and circles the monstrous stonework, stained with old blood and blackened marks. He returns and settles by her boot. “Do you really, really love him?” he asks again.

The uncharacteristic quake in his voice, makes her own knees shake unsteadily. Regardless, Tess puts her hand on the stone pillar, and stares hard at the great oak door across the bridge. “My Prince is in there,” she says. “And I'm going in for him.”

Sebastian takes to her shoulder, his head held high, “Wise choice, my lady.”

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