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The Raven’s test

Book one of ‘The Longhand Chronicles’

A celtic-mythology-based ‘contemporary’, young-adult fantasy novel

The Raven's Test (1)

Chapter one

The seagull crammed its body onto the narrow windowsill and inspected Louis contemplatively.

“Aargh,” it screeched as he shut the curtains.  “Aargh, aargh.”

The faded, moth-eaten fabric obscured its watchful yellow eye, but Louis knew it was still there, watching and waiting, like it had been for days.

It was following him.

Every time he left the kids’ home or school it scuttled towards him on pink claws; head cocked to one side so that he couldn’t avoid looking into its glaring eye.

“Get a grip, you nut job,” he muttered to himself, flopping into the plastic chair at the desk in his room.  He was losing it again.  He had to be.  He pulled a small plastic bag from his pocket and swallowed one of the large blue pills it contained.  ‘Post-Traumatic-Stress,’ the psychiatrist had called it, passing Louis’ social worker a prescription.  ‘Not unusual in children that have lost a parent.  Make sure he takes one of these in the morning and one at night… And make sure no one else gets hold of them.’ 

Louis had swallowed the large blue tablet dutifully when instructed because he couldn’t be bothered to fight.  The pills had made his mind numb and his limbs heavy.  He had been slow and cumbersome, making the other kids in the care home whisper and laugh even more than they had before.

Oi,’ they had sniggered, ‘loopy Langford.  Is it true your dad got squashed by a forklift truck?’

‘Is it true your dad got killed trying to save a tree?’

‘Is it true your dad was one of them activists?  Must have loved monkeys more than you.’

‘Was he a ginger like you?’  Frankie had jeered.  ‘But it’s not exactly ginger, is it?  It’s yellower like – ‘

‘Dark pee,’ Celina from room five had added, and they had all laughed until Ben had stopped them.

‘Shut up,’ Ben had ordered, putting an arm round Louis’ shoulder.  ‘From now on he’s with ME.’  The other kids had scurried away then, even ferrety Frankie.  Because you didn’t mess with Ben and his gang.  Not if you didn’t want your face carved up.  He had closed the door to Louis’ room and squeezed his shoulder fraternally.  ‘Did they give you the big blue pills?’ he had asked kindly.  ‘Stop taking them, bro, they’re making you zombified.  Stash them and give em to me.  I can get good money for those ones.  I’ll split it with you.  They’ll never notice, I’ve watched them.  They don’t make sure you take it.’

Louis hadn’t spoken to Ben at first, but he had stopped taking the pills. Ben came to get them every night, sitting with Louis for hours and telling him all about his past.

‘What happened to your mum?’ Ben had asked out of the blue one evening.

‘She left when I was born,’ Louis had replied.  ‘She was a big shot in one of those petroleum companies.  My dad worked for her before he joined the environmental movement.  That’s how they met.  That’s why he became an activist.’

‘And she didn’t ask for you back when your dad died? Ben had asked as Louis shook his head.  ‘That’s tough man.  But you’re dealing with it, right?  Not many eleven-year-olds could do that.’  Ben had gripped Louis’ hand and taught him the special, gang handshake him on the back.  Louis had grinned, but that had been a year ago – three months after Louis’ dad had died.  Ben had been his friend ever since, but now he was in youth detention – for shoplifting of all ridiculous things – and Louis was alone again.

The seagull tapped on the window, jolting Louis back to the present.

“Go away,” he shouted, tipping another pill from the bag and swallowing it.  “I’ve got to write my essay.”  He unbuckled his father’s watch from his wrist and placed it gently on top of the desk.  The essay was rubbish.  He had managed about a paragraph before the bird had found him, and it made no sense.  He couldn’t write anything since Dad had been killed.  The words just wouldn’t come.

The bird tapped on the window again, and Louis stuffed his headphones into his ears.  A familiar tune – one of his dad’s favourites – blasted out as he turned his ancient iPod on.  He cranked up the volume and looked up at the photo pinned on the cork board above the desk.

“Why did you have to die, Dad?” He asked the smiling figure in a checked shirt.  “Why did you have to leave me here?”  Louis remembered his dad’s laugh; pictured him smiling down genially.  Then he put his hand down on the desk and sobbed.

A scrabbling from the top of the window woke him, and Louis shot upright.  The music from the iPOD had gone off, and he had dribbled all over his essay, smudging his name and the paragraph of nonsense he had written.  The scrabbling stopped, then started again, then stopped.  What the hell was that noise? He turned towards the window.  A bulge had appeared at the top of his curtain.

“Aargh,” said the bulge, as Louis jumped up from the desk and hauled the tatty fabric aside.

The seagull was perched precariously on the handle of his little window.

“How the hell did you get in here?” Louis hollered as the gull launched itself forward with a deafening flapping.

It landed on his bed.

“What the hell,” said Louis as the bird pulled itself up to its full disgruntled height.

“Don’t you ‘what the hell me’, young man,” said the gull in a voice that reminded Louis of other people’s grandmothers.  “A merry dance you’ve led me and no mistake.”

Louis shook his head.  He must be dreaming still, he thought, one of those waking dreams that feel so real.  A high-pitched giggle escaped him – a talking seagull – what was going on in his head?

The seagull yanked a stuck claw out of Louis’ frayed duvet cover.  The fabric ripped, but the bird’s claw remained entangled.  It stopped and looked at him.  “What are you laughing at? You think this is funny?”

He gaped at it.

“Close your mouth you’ll swallow a fly.”

Louis shut his eyes.  The bird was still there, staring at him when he opened them.  “This is not real,” he muttered to himself, turning away.  “You’re asleep.  It’s not real.”

“You’re awake and I’m still here,” screeched the gull.

“La-la-la,” sang Louis, pacing to the door.

“I’m not going anywhere until you answer, so you might as well talk to me real or not,” clacked the bird.  “What are you calling yourself this time?”

He turned back to face it.  It was ripping at the duvet with its beak now, making the tear larger.  He eyed the rip nervously.  “Louis,” he whispered tentatively before he could stop himself.  “Could you mind the duvet please.  I don’t want to get in trouble.”

The seagull squawked crossly as Louis ran to the door and opened it a crack.  “Oh, never mind me,” it muttered as he peered into the deserted corridor.  “Never mind me, tangled up in this stuff.  You’ve been with these people too long if your only consideration is getting in trouble, Lugh of the Longhand.”  The bird flapped its wings agitatedly, rising from the bed and disentangling itself.  “Aaaargh,” it screeched, landing on the desk.  “Selfish is what it is … Selfish!”

“Okay, okay. Calm down,” hissed Louis.  “Someone will hear you, and then -”

The seagull’s sharp-looking beak clashed shut with a frightening clack.  “And then what?” it snapped.

Louis knew what.  They’d have him sectioned, but he didn’t want to say that for fear of setting the gull off on another loud rant.  “And then … someone might hurt you.  They’re all a bit mad, so keep it down, alright?”

The seagull cocked its head to one side and fixed him with its cold eye.  “Well, I’m Melissa,” she cackled crossly.  “Now come on, Lugh of the Longhand.”  She snatched his father’s watch from the desk in a sharp-looking claw and rose into the air.

“Hey,” he shouted, scrambling to catch the bird as it flapped to the window. “Give that back.”

The seagull put the claw that held his father’s watch through a tiny open gap in his window then squeezed her head after it.

“Give it back,” Louis repeated, grabbing her wriggling abdomen.  “That was my dad’s.”

The bird wiggled and writhed out of his grasp.  “Don’t make this difficult, Lugh of the Longhand,” she said with a sound uncannily like a tut.  “Now hurry, I told you we don’t have much time.”  She pulled her bottom through the window and launched herself into the air, taking his father’s watch with her.

“No,” shouted Louis. “That was my dad’s, bring it back.”  But the seagull had gone.  He ran to his bedroom door and yanked it open, running down to the hall, past the sniggering faces of some kids on the stairs.  Frankie was among them, his sharp, pimply face jeering from under a manky, grey hood.  “Loopy Langford,” he shouted to a cacophony of laughs, but Louis didn’t care.  The wind swallowed their insults as he opened the front door.

The gull was above a lamp-post across the street, flapping her wings desperately against the gale that buffeted her and tried to blow her out to sea.  Or was it her? Seagulls all looked the same to him.  He surveyed the sky.  There were no other gulls about, so he hurried towards the streetlight.

The bird looked down, his father’s watch glinting in her claw from the orange, halogen glow.  “Come on,” she cried, battling her way to the next lamp-post.”  If you don’t hurry we’ll miss it.”  She took off again and flew ahead.

Louis picked up his pace, striding purposefully.

“You’ll have to go faster than that,” she shouted, wheeling in the air.  Hurry up!”

Louis broke into a jog, then a run, and soon he was sprinting, trying to keep up.  The wind blew from the north, out to sea.  It grabbed his breath as it went, carrying the last warmth of summer with it.  But the sea remained flat and peaceful.

‘Like a mill pond,’ his father would have said.

Louis had never seen a mill pond, but he imagined that it would be calm; inviting; possibly deadly.

The bird landed on the beach and watched Louis disparagingly as he ran down the concrete steps to join her.  “Just in time,” she squawked.

He gasped for breath, hands on his knees, trying to ignore her voice.

She looked him up and down disapprovingly.  “This would never have happened three-thousand years ago.”

He wrinkled his brow.  “A gull is not talking to me,” he muttered to himself, lunging towards her.  “Give me my watch.”

The seagull hopped back, out of his reach, cackling to herself softly.

He glared at her.

“I’d strip if I was you.”

Louis gaped at her in disbelief.  “No way!” he snapped instinctively.

She stretched her wings and looked out to sea.  “Suit yourself … but don’t blame me when your nice clothes get all salty.”

Louis looked down at his jeans.  They were his favourite ones.  The last thing his father had saved up to buy him.  He had disapproved of brands because it was unethical, he said, but he had caved in and bought them for Louis anyway.

“Who cares about my clothes,” replied Louis.  “I don’t want to look like a nutter.”

“Aaaargh,” laughed Melissa, turning her back into the wind and taking off.  “Aaaargh, aaargh, aargh, aargh … well you’re going to look like a nutter where you’re going … but it’s too late now.”  She opened her wings wide and wheeled round, letting the wind carry her out to sea.  Below her, the sea sighed, then held its breath it seemed.

“Give me my watch,” hollered Louis, running into the still water.  It was breath-stealingly cold.  He gasped as the chill crept upwards, freezing the blood in his heart.  He stopped, unable to propel himself further forward, unwilling to turn back.  And then it came from nowhere.  A wave big enough to engulf three of him, stacked on each other’s shoulders.  Louis froze with fear.  He should dive under it, he knew, but panic held him statue-like.  He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the cold to close over him, but it didn’t come.  Louis opened his eyes and looked up.  The wave had stopped just in front of him like someone had paused a film.  And in the static water, right at its crest was a huge wooden ship – an ancient-looking ship with a massive carved silver prow.  At the front of it stood a giant of a man, wild with long white hair but a young face.

“Longhand,” boomed the man jovially.  “It has been too long.”

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