Published: September 10, 2017
There was a time, long ago, when all the crows and ravens of the world were as white as swans still are. In those days, there was once a king who wished to marry a queen.
The woman he had chosen was wise and kind and clever, and she had no wish to become his queen. But the king was a cruel and jealous man; and so he locked her up into a room at the top of his highest tower, and swore she would remain there until she agreed to be his bride. Each night the king came to her and asked again for her hand, and each night again she refused him.
The queen spent her days alone in the tower, with only the birds who flew past for company. “Would that I could be one of you,” she said, “free to fly from this prison! Would that I could grow wings!”
There was one bird who came by each day to visit her, no matter the weather or season: a magpie, with feathers as white as snow. She listened to the queen’s songs and stories and sorrows, and saw that she was wise and clever and kind, and also that she was beautiful; and as the days passed and the queen remained trapped there, bit by bit the magpie fell in love with her.
She courted the queen with gifts: beautiful things she had found on her flights away, and carried up to the tower for the queen’s delight. Her first gift was an old silver arm-ring she had found in the forest, half-buried under leaves and tarnished black, but she had polished and preened it until it gleamed.
The queen was overjoyed, and at once slipped it over her arm. But that night when the king came to her, he saw the silver arm-ring and said, “Where did this come from?”
“A bird gave it to me, a magpie,” said the queen.
Thinking her a liar, the king planted roses and blackberries at the foot of the tower and set his archers to watching her window. As for the arm-ring, he took it to his treasury, and left the queen feeling more trapped and alone than ever.
But the magpie still came to see her; and the queen took comfort in her nearness.
Soon enough the magpie brought a second gift: a bright blue bead carved from lapis, which she had found between the seeds and stones of a rich man’s garden. Again the queen was overjoyed, and at once tied it into a strand of her hair.
But that night when the king came to her, he saw the blue bead in her hair and said, “Where did this come from?” And though the queen was wise and clever, in the fear of the moment she could say only: “A magpie gave it to me.”
The king cut the bead from her hair and brought it away to his treasury, and ordered bars set into her windows.
When the magpie next visited the queen, slipping carefully between the bars, she found her weeping.
“Would that I had wings like you!” said the queen. “Would that I could fly away between these bars!”
That night the magpie made her final gift for the queen. From her own blood and spit and feathers she crafted a talisman which would turn the queen into a bird and allow her to fly free.
The queen was overjoyed, and together they flew away into the forest, to be wed; and all the crows and ravens of the world flew by to celebrate their marriage.
But when the king saw that the queen had flown, he fell into a rage. He went out into the forest, and by chance came across the magpie’s queen; and remembering that she had spoken of a bird, he shot her through the heart. She died without a sound.
Then the crows and the ravens fell upon him, and tore him apart.
From that day forth all the crows and ravens of the world wore feathers black with mourning. And even today, beneath the magpie’s black one can still see the white of her wedding gown.