The Law demands balance. Just as every spoken word requires a breath, and as every movement needs the tremor of a heartbeat, so to must the Law be paid. - The Book of Law
They say the Crow moon always brings bad luck. Ara had never believed that. Her ma often told her luck was something you make for yourself. If you weren’t strong enough to make your luck, you weren’t strong enough for the world. The Law had a ruthless sense of balance. Be strong and live. Be weak and die.
But now, Ara would have believed anything you told her about the Crow Moon - or any moon for that matter. She would have believed that the Wolf moon brought good hunting, or that the Hare moon would bless any woman with a child. She would have even believed that the Fish moon would bring more rain. She had come to realize that when things started to go wrong, for what seemed to be no reason at all, it helped to have something to blame it on. Four days ago, when the Crow moon had been a gossamer circle in the afternoon sky, things had gone very wrong for her.
Ara tried to move, hoping to find a position that soothed the pricks of pain in her arms. They had been shackled by her head for almost two days now. Hot needles of pain poked in and out, searing her skin where they touched. Haltingly, she struggled up against the wall, till her arms dangled freely. But now it was her weak legs that were holding her up, and they couldn’t do that for long. With a soft groan, she slid back to the ground. The chains tightened against her wrists, and her shoulders were drawn up and away, pulling at the muscles and sockets keeping them in place.
Her head rolled to one side, and from this new vantage point, she could see the fading Crow moon. It wasn’t a round disk anymore. Now it was caving in on itself. The edges were no longer crisp and defined. They were blurred with creeping shadows. Two days. It had been two days since she started to believe in bad luck. Two days since she had eaten, since she’d had water, and since she had seen another person.
It had been two days since he died.
The Crow moon preferred to set when the morning sun woke, so like a slow wink from the great bird itself, it disappeared for the day. She didn’t have much longer to wait. Ara knew they would come one hour after dawn.
The cold, gray light of morning was just beginning to turn gold with warmth when she heard the voice and the stamping feet. They were coming. As they tramped in, Ara studied them hungrily. She didn’t care that they were here to fulfill the Law. It was enough for her that she would no longer be left alone in the silence and the memories. There were two old men and one boy around her age. Almost a man, just not quite.
The high chief stepped forward, eyes half closed and mouth set in a grim line. “Ara Eldingborn you have been charged with the death of Carran Dreymaborn. He was a friend, a son, and a brother.” The young man next to him shifted, face tight with pain and eyes shadowed with sadness. I’m so sorry, Keld, Ara thought. He didn’t deserve this.
The other man cleared his throat. He was tall and solemn. In one hand he carried a large book. It was the Book of Law, and he was the Keeper of the Law. “As Carran suffered before his death for two days, so you have suffered for two days. And now the time is completed. As the Book says, the Law must be balanced. You, Ara Eldingborn, will die as he did, and thus restore the Law.”
A quiet, “no,” slipped from her lips as the barest whisper. She didn’t even think the others had heard her. Die. Die, die, die. The word echoed in her mind, as loud as the roar of the river.
The Keeper had no sympathy for her anguish. “Balance must be kept,” he said. His voice creaked like he rarely used it. “You could not save his life so now you must lose yours.”
She knew this. A thousand times over she knew this, but that still didn’t stop the argument from wrestling its way free. “I tried,” she whispered. Her own voice was raspy, broken from disuse and hours of sobbing. Now her eyes burned with tears that couldn’t come. “I tried to save him, but the river was too strong. Believe me, Keeper, please.” Her head was bent - the closest she could come to begging. “I tried to save him.” When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they were cold. It didn’t matter what she had tried to do, the Law only cared about what she didn’t do. She didn’t save him, and now a payment must be made. Her eyes flicked to Keld who had been quiet. “Believe me.”
“Enough,” said the high chief. His voice was not harsh or angry. It was sad. “Carran died at noon two days ago. You will die then too.” He spared her one sad, pitying look. “We will leave you to your thoughts.”
As they left, her body sagged against the chains. His words seemed to sap the last of the strength from her limbs. Die, die, die. “Please,” she moaned, dry sobs shaking her frame. “I tried so hard.” Her only answer was the silence.
Ara pulled her body as close as she could, rocking back and forth, trying to comfort herself. Every time she closed her eyes, all she could see was the fear in Carran’s eyes, his hand as it freed itself from the water, clawing at the air as though he could use it to pull himself up.
The voice startled her, and she gasped, sitting up straight. Keld was standing by the door, arms crossed in a way that made Ara feel as though he were hugging himself. Like the chief, his voice wasn’t angry. It was sad and tired.
“You know me, Keld,” she whispered. “You know I tried.”
“Answer the question.” This time his voice had the barest hint of anger. Ara closed her eyes again, watching it all unfold. His eyes, his hand, the way his cries had been silenced as the river swallowed him up. She was rocking again, back and forth, and Keld crept closer. “Please.” All the pain she had twisted in her heart she could hear in his voice.
She opened her eyes, but they weren’t seeing the dark walls of her prison. They were seeing a boy, a tree, and a river. “We were looking for the white crow.”
The forest was pleasantly warm. The late spring sun drifted lazily through the branches, while song birds and squirrels chatted away in the very tops of the trees. On the ground, the sun-warmed earth sent out delicate, white flowers that perfumed the air. Carran and Ara walked side by side. “I can’t believe you’re dragging me all the way out here just to find a silly bird.”
Carran bumped against her lightly, before hopping up onto a fallen log. Arms outstretched, he walked across its length. “You know the tales. On the day of the Crown Moon, anyone who finds the white crow is given a single wish.”
Ara rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know the tales. And that’s just what they are - tales. Stories made up by bored ma’s at the loom and drunk travelers at midnight.”
He hopped down beside her, poking her in the side. “You scoff, but wouldn’t you like to have a wish of your own?”
She crossed her arms with a scowl. “And what exactly is it you would wish for, oh great crow hunter?”
He pushed his hands into his pockets, looking bored. “I hadn’t given it much thought,” he said voice drawling over the words. Ara knew he was lying. The way he peeked at her, eyes bright - he wanted her to beg him for an answer. But despite her curiosity, she would not give him the satisfaction.
She let one eyebrow arch high. “You’re shallow enough I can probably guess what you would want.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
Ara sat herself primly on the fallen log, smoothing her skirts against her legs. “The same thing every stupid man wants: a house carved from gold, a thousand and one wives, or perhaps a great hunting dog, and a brutish son made just in your likeness.” She turned her nose up at him. “And you, crow hunter, are just another stupid man.”
He was quiet for a moment longer than Ara thought he would be, and she when she cast a glance in his direction she saw he was staring thoughtfully in her direction. He took a step toward her. “It wouldn’t have to be carved in gold,” he said. “A simple cabin would suit me fine.” His next words brought him even closer. “I already have a good dog, and I would want a little girl who would let me try to fix her hair.” Now he was standing so close she was forced to look up to meet his eyes. He bent low, and Ara’s heart skipped a beat. She was thankful she was sitting. “As for my wives,” his smiling green eyes looked into her own, pale brown ones. “I think just one will do.”
Her cheeks burned. “Scoundrel,” she muttered, not letting herself look away. As he leaned closer, for one wild, heart-stopping moment, she thought he would kiss her, but then his lips were by her ear.
“I bet you can’t beat me to the river,” he said in a sing-song voice. Then, before she had a chance to realize what was happening, he pinched her cheek and took off at a full run.
Ara’s heart, which had been so still a moment ago, now pound with a feverish flurry. “Cheater!” she shrieked, before running as fast as she could to catch up with him. By the time she reached the river, Carran was already standing there, stretching with a lazy yawn.
“Took you long enough,” he said, a triumphant grin stretched across his face. “You were slower than a hag.”
Her glare meant nothing to him and did little more than make him laugh. “Where is your so-called wish granter?” she asked, stalking past him to fix her look on the tumbling river. His hands cupped her face from behind and tilted it upwards before directing it downstream. A long branch hung suspended over the foaming water. Shrugging out of his touch, she stomped away. “This had better be worth it,” she called over her shoulder. Standing underneath the tree, she squinted up at it. Positioned almost mockingly far from the trunk, and balanced uneasily over the water’s edge was a tangled pile of twigs and leaves she supposed could pass for a nest. Next to her, Carran was pulling off his boots. For the first time, Ara felt nerves tighten in her belly. “You may be too heavy. Let me go up and get it.”
“I would say yes,” Carran said, flinging off his socks. “But you climb as well as a dog.”
Before she could slap him, he scrambled up the trunk, and she was forced to do nothing more than snap a quick, “Be careful, you stupid man.”
He winked down at her. “If I didn’t know any better, I might say you were worried for me.”
“Not at all,” she called back, face softening into a grin. “I just want to see you try and manage a thousand wives. Now go get your wish.”
As he climbed, she shifted from foot to foot, picking at the skin around her fingernails. Now that he was getting closer, she could see that it was too narrow. Visions of it breaking and dropping him into the river rushed into her mind. When he took the first step onto it, her breath snagged in her throat. But there was no resounding snap. With a mighty groan, it bent but held firm. He shimmied to the nest and peeked his head over the end. “No crow,” he called down. She could hear the disappointment in his voice. “But there is an egg! Maybe we can hatch the crow and it will grant us wishes forever!”
“Yes, yes, just grab it and come down!” Her nerves were singing, and every time he moved, she felt them jolt down to her toes. He was moving closer to the trunk, ready to climb down, a single pearly white egg clutched against his chest. Ara breathed a sigh of relief.
"See, d-ara-ling,” he crowed, “I told you I’d be fi”- His words were cut off when a sickening crack cut through the air. She could only watch as the egg, the branch, and Carran tumbled into the rushing river below.
“You tried to save him.” Keld’s soft words pulled her out of the story and back into her cold prison. Had it really already been four days since she had jumped into the water to drag his unconscious body to the shore? Four days since she had struggled to staunch the bleeding of the large gash on his forehead. Four whole days since she had dragged him, still coughing up river water, through the woods and to the village. He had stayed in the world for two more days, slipping in and out of consciousness, water gurgling in his throat with every breath.
Four days since she had tried to save him. Two days since he had died.
“I tried.” That was all she could muster.
Keld was sitting next to her now, and she heard him sniffle. She wanted to cry too, but now she just felt wrung dry. “I don’t want you to die,” he finally said. “You shouldn’t have to. You did everything you could.”
Not everything. She could see that now. Maybe if she hadn’t agreed to go with him. Maybe if she had climbed the tree herself. Maybe if she hadn’t loved him. “No. The Law is right. I tried, but it wasn’t enough.” From where she sat she could see the sun getting higher and higher. It was almost time. “I will die for the Law. You heard the Keeper. Carran’s… death has upset the balance - I upset the balance. The Law needs my blood.”
As though her words summoned him, the Keeper appeared in the doorway, the high chief at his elbow. “It is time.”
Keld was up on his feet in a moment. “Please Keeper, you can’t do this. She did all she could for my brother. Let her live.”
The Keeper only looked at them in his solemn, unblinking way. “The Law must be balanced. If we allow the Law to be broken here, then our entire world will collapse. I’m afraid it is required.”
There was no other argument given and it seemed in no time at all, Ara was standing under the broken tree, feet chained together. A large weight was attached to the end. A shifting crowd surrounded her. The whole town had come to watch the balancing of the Law.
The Keeper stood before her, the Book of Law in his hand. “Two days ago our Law was broken.” His voice carried over even the sound of the river. He swept his hand toward Ara. “A death unpaid is the Law unbalanced.”
Keld stepped forward. It was his brother, so it would be his responsibility. “I don’t want to do this,” he whispered, voice cracking. “The Law has to be wrong.”
Ara gave him a weak smile. She wouldn’t make this harder than it was. She owed him and Carran that much at least. “It’s okay. I know it must be done. For the Law.”
“For the Law,” he repeated. He bent down and picked up the weight. Placing it in her hands, he gave her one last searching look. “Forgive me.”
And then he pushed her.
She was falling down, down, down into the depths of the river. As the weight slipped from her hand and dragged her deeper, the sunlight around her faded with her life.
On the bank, a boy wept on his knees, and a village waited, silent and still. After what seemed like a small eternity, the Keeper shook himself from his thoughts. With a heavy sigh, he turned away from the seething water. “The Law is balanced once more.”