Read The Raven's Head

Posted on 16th March 2015 by Karen Maitland
Read an extract from The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland.

Norfolk,  England

And the air of the four quarters of the world must occupy three parts of the room that the death song of the swan may be distinctly heard.

Gisa is sitting in the narrow beam of sunlight that penetrates the dark interior of her uncle’s apothecary’s shop, grinding a root of black hellebore. She does not need to see her hands in order to do her work. She has pounded roots, dried herbs and minerals for her uncle so often that her fingers can feel just when the texture is right. But she is grateful for the warmth of the sun, hungry for it, for she seldom has the time to feel its touch on her cheek.

A shadow falls across Gisa’s lap. The girl glances up, frowning. A man is standing outside the shop, but she cannot see his face because the sunlight is behind him. Sighing, she lays aside the pestle and mortar and crosses the narrow room towards him. The shutters on the small shop have been lowered from the window to form a counter, which protrudes like a tongue into the street beyond

Most customers are served through this window. They are admitted to the shop only when her uncle needs to inspect a wound or examine a bloodshot eye. Otherwise the door is kept barred for fear that curious children will sneak in or would-be murderers: on these shelves are stored more ways to dispatch a man into the next life than can be found in King Henry’s arsenal. Some of the potions and powders would kill a man gently with an endless sleep. Others would make him suffer all the agonies of Hell long before he descended into Satan’s realm.

The man at the window says nothing, asks for nothing, but as soon as the girl recognises the bulbous, pitted nose and the sharp green eyes, a cold stone rises up in her throat. She wants to call for her uncle, vanish until they have concluded their business, but she dare not keep him waiting outside. Reluctantly, she unfastens the door and the man sweeps through. The heavy folds of his black tunic almost catch in the door as Gisa hastens to close it behind him. He gazes down at her. A faint stench of urine hangs about him. He stands too close, always too close, and she wants to move away, but the edge of the table is pressing into her back, trapping her.

The light from the window flashes on the silver embroidery at the neck of his black tunic and around his black hat. ‘Osle’ – the townspeople call him, though never within his hearing – the great black bird. It is an old name from the elder faith, for the Christian saints are powerless to protect them from those ancient fears that cannot be caged by the words of the Church. The goodwives cover their children’s eyes as Osle passes, spitting on their fingers to deflect the malice of his gaze. They hurriedly cross the square to avoid being grazed by his shadow, though they are seldom put to this trouble, for he rarely comes to the town except to visit the apothecary’s shop and that in itself unnerves them.

‘My uncle is in the courtyard, Lord Sylvain,’ Gisa mutters.

‘I’ll fetch him.’ She tries to edge away, but he blocks her in.

‘Today is your birthday, is it not? Fifteen, a young lady now.’

She blushes, wondering how he could possibly know that.

Her aunt and uncle have not remembered. Secretly she thinks herself a woman, but his words have turned her into an awkward child again. He stands too close. His gaze is too intense. There  is  nowhere  safe  for  her  to  look,  without turning her head away from him. She’s seen women do that when they are feigning indifference, but are really trying to seduce a man. She’s frightened he will think she is playing that game. She stares down at the black leather tassels on the purse that dangles from his belt. Each thong ends in a silver bauble in the form of a snake’s head. The merest twitch of his body makes them writhe. To her embarrassment, he follows her gaze and reaches for his purse, as if he thinks she is a street urchin begging for a coin.

‘I have a gift for you,’ he says.

He pulls out a small package wrapped in shining white silk.

Since she makes no attempt to reach for it, he lifts her hand and places the gift in her palm, closing her thin fingers around it. She feels the magical softness of the silk, but at once it grows sticky in her sweating hand.

He commands her to unwrap it and she does, though she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want this gift, whatever it may be, but she dare not offend him.

The white silk lies open, covering her hand. In the centre of the cloth is a brooch in the form of a white enamelled swan with a snaking arched neck. Its beak, which is fashioned from gold, is opened wide as if the bird cries out in agony.

‘The mute swan sings only as it dies. Did you know that, Gisa? The most pure, the most sublime beauty can only be achieved through death. But then,’ he sweeps his hand about the room, indicating the stacks of jars and boxes cramming the shelves, ‘who knows better than you and your uncle that perfect healing is to be found in the deadliest of poisons?’

Without asking for her permission, he takes the swan and pins it to her kirtle directly over her thudding heart.

Join us tomorrow for a Q&A with Karen Maitland.


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