An unkindness of ravens bobbed in and out the trees of the Moors. They made garbled, mangled sounds that were nothing like Diaval’s usual squawks. He puffed up, protecting himself from the chill of late winter. When he responded to the flock with a similar warbling call, Maleficent gave him a curious look.
After Aurora had officially left the Moors, and Dark Fae filled her absence, Maleficent decided to no longer live in the small glen. She moved with them to the hills that pierced low clouds like rocky outcroppings. The spires of Ulstead castle were in full of their new home.
While living atop the hills was all well and good for those with wings, it was dangerous for Diaval to take his human form. His nest was the largest by far, accommodating both his and Maleficent’s size. She’d modeled it after the hanging structures built by the rainforest fae. It was a magnificent teardrop shape, and even included a railing at its entrance. However, he worried he might just topple over the edge of the thick-reed fence. There were days when she’d unceremoniously change his shape without warning.
“What did that mean?” she asked, referring to the sound he’d made.
He shifted his form before she caught him off guard. No longer perched as a bird, he sat as a man with his legs dangling over the expanse. “Doesn’t have a translation,” he lied. Carefully, he tightened his coat with one hand and held onto the nest with the other.
“Now is not the time for untruths, bird.” She reached for his collar and pulled him down into the soft fabrics and grasses that covered the floor.
“I was wishing them luck.” He rearranged until he lounged, arms crossed behind his head. “The mating season has begun.” A small smile slid across his lips and vanished just as quickly. “It’s been years since any have graced this area. But after your grand black, Phoenix-y display, you couldn’t have announced any clearer ‘a giant raven protects this land. Come in for a visit. Try your luck!’” He glanced up at her and noticed a curious expression.
“You expect me to take up with a raven?” Avoiding his continuous staring, she turned to focus on the birds.
“Of course not. With the rate Borra visits, I expect no one stands a chance. But they are less interested in you as a potential partner, as they are wishing for your blessing.”
“If that’s the case,” she said with a smirk. “Then tell them they may have it.”
The unkindess continued their endless squawking for a week. Maleficent even had to dodge several of the birds on her return flight from Ulstead. She’d left specifically to be free of the cacophony, claiming a headache.
“Do they ever stop?” she barked at Diaval, who couldn’t respond since he was gliding beside her.
He dropped onto an exposed root on the nearest cliff face. Surprising the the both of them, he balanced with one foot on the root, one wedged into a rock, and his hands clinging to a vine above his head.
“These things take time, Mistress.”
“Isn’t a week enough? Can’t they make up their minds?” She beat her wings, flapping Diaval’s clothes in the process. She noticed how he shivered.
“It took Prince Phillip years to propose to Aurora. Can you not give them a couple of months?”
“Months. How can it take months? Is it that difficult to fertilize a clutch and then get the hell out?” she said, clicking her tongue.
He leaned dangerously forward so that his nose pressed to hers. “What do you take us for? Ravens are not common barn fowl. We mate for life. A decision like that shouldn’t be so easily made.”
Leaping, he shoved her out of the way and dropped beneath the clouds. Instinctually she dove after him, though it should’ve been obvious that he’d resurface with his wings. He twirled and spun and soared. He climbed higher. He dove near vertically. He cawed at the top of his tiny lungs, drowning out the sounds of any other ravens in the area.
Maleficent matched his moves, reserved enough not to pull ahead of him despite her larger size. They continued their erratic flying across the Moors until he felt a twinge in his wing. He stuttered into an updraft and found a gentle current that led them home.
Tumbling into the nest, he transformed mid-landing.
“I’m getting too old for that,” he complained, flexing his arm.
“That was quite the display of stupidity.” Maleficent said, gracefully swooping in behind him. She held her hand to his shoulder and convinced golden wisps of magic to heal his injury.
“The womenfolk have been mocking me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Have they, now?”
“As for the menfolk, well, this should get them off your back for the season.”
“That’s what they were doing? All of that fluttering about and ramming against me recently?” Her surprise was genuine. “I thought you said they weren’t actually trying to engage me.”
“Most of them. But there is always a young one who wants to claim the best mate even though he knows it’s impossible. One of the reasons most of us don’t pair until our third or fourth season.”
“You know this from experience?” There was a quietness to her voice, her usual bite gone.
“I never got far in the process. Didn’t like the prospects in my province. So I didn’t really put my all into it. Diving around everyday can get exhausting. Especially for a lady that doesn’t compare to my beautiful self. Swore I wouldn’t do it again unless I found someone worth the effort.” He breathed out a sigh. “By my second season, I’d met you.”
“And there were no ravens in the Moors,” she added with a nod of acknowledgement.
“Correct.” When he bent down to grab an apple, his back cracked.
“You really shouldn’t do that again.”
Righting himself, his bones creaked once more. “Is that an order?” He bit into the fruit and a fleck landed on Maleficent’s cheek.
“Unless you mean it. I’m sure there are plenty of females among them who would crumble at the opportunity to bond with the Phoenix’s familiar.” She smiled, and it was all fang. “Imagine all the sweet little hatchlings, gaping at you to provide for them.”
“One daughter is enough.” He used his thumb to brush the bit of apple from her cheekbone. “Don’t you agree?” Bringing his thumb toward his mouth, he licked the pad.
Diaval had been correct. Though the ravens still sang and danced aloft for one another, they no longer bothered Maleficent. In fact, the flights became less frequent. The birds were more likely to be huddled in trees instead of the air.
“Is it finally over?” she asked, sitting atop the human ruins at the far end of the Moors.
“The showy parts? Yes. The other parts have just begun.” Diaval helped transfer terrified mushroom caps from the tops of the crumbling walls to the grass below. A fox had crossed the border and begun tormenting the tiny creatures. They appeared similar to chicken eggs, except with legs. Maleficent had scared the fox away, but just like a treed cat, the mushrooms were unsure of how to descend unaided.
“Well. What comes after the showy parts?”
After placing the last of the frightened fair folk on the ground, Diaval chose to sit behind her. “Preening.” She bristled when his hands slid between her feathers. “Right now, they are in something akin to the courtship Aurora and Phillip maintained before their engagement.” He deftly used his fingers to align her feathers and remove bits of wax and debris. “There is touch. There is tenderness. But there is also time. Nothing is set in stone. If someone wants out, they are free to leave with no hard feelings. No one has reached a point of no return.”
She yelped when he plucked at a broken feather, so askew that it stuck in a direction opposite its neighbors.
“You don’t do this near often enough, Mistress.”
“Years without, and one forgets what a hassle molting is.”
“Perhaps, it would be of benefit to have someone groom you regularly.”
“Ah.” She put a finger to her lips. “I bet Borra knows how. Given our similar wing structure.”
“He is free to do so when the Dark Fae mating season begins,” Diaval said through gritted teeth.
“From what I’ve seen, we are like humans. There is no season. We are not like animals, reliant on tradition.”
“Have you learned nothing from the young ones? Trying when the timing is wrong, when status is unequal, only results in failure.”
“It has been more than two decades. Your people have returned. That’s an awfully long time to wait on precedent, Diaval.”
“It was never about the lack of birdfolk. I was simply too busy.” No longer fussing with her wings, he began detangling her hair. “My time was better served as a companion than a lover.”
“Then what has changed?”
Weeks passed and the ravens disappeared beneath the clouds, their mating dances complete. They busied themselves readying nests and awaiting their broods. Snow fell in thick flakes, but melted to a drizzle of rain when it reached the forest canopy. Diaval sat perched on his railing as Maleficent and her guest took up the entirety of their home.
“You swear he won’t peck my eyes?” Borra asked, reaching to pet the bird on the head.
“I said nothing of the sort.” Maleficent grinned wickedly. “Creatures in season tend to be...volatile.”
Diaval nipped at Borra’s wrist to prove her point.
“A lifetime of this must be draining. You should find him a mate. I saw a flock nesting down below.”
Diavel leapt from the railing and alighted on Borra’s shoulder. He repeatedly bit at his pointed ear, but refrained from drawing blood.
Maleficent threw her head back and cackled. “I knew it was a splendid idea to invite you.”
With a wave of her hand, Diaval transformed with a puff of smoke into a man. He landed in Borra’s lap, as there really wasn’t much other space besides astride Maleficent. The three of them wiggled, bending knees, tucking wings, and moving baskets of food until they weren’t squashing one another.
“Back to business. How are the deserts to the south? You haven’t run into issues with the local villages?”
“The treaties between Ulstead and their kingdom hold fast. We are safe as long as the Queen of the Moors rules Ulstead.”
“And your wife? How fares the pregnancy? Diaval insists that I partake in small talk. Especially if my guests travel as far as you have.”
“Wife?” Diaval’s question came out squawk-like.
“Yes, little birdie. If you are concerned I am to take your mistress,” he said, rubbing his sore ear, “you needn’t be.”
The rest of Borra’s visit occurred without problem. On the last night, all of the Dark Fae of the Moors gathered in the glen. They held a feast and bonfire by the throne. Of course, the fire was magicked only to glow and not consume.
Diaval spent most of the evening as a raven. The children reveled in chasing him through the air, afraid to hover higher than their parents’ heads. He was happy to indulge them. Eventually, Maleficent called him over. She stroked his back gently when he landed on her staff.
“My I have a word with you?” she asked, carrying him beneath the swinging vines of the weeping willow. Once they were secluded, she spoke to him again. “You have been exceedingly patient with me. More so than I deserve.”
He cocked his head, looking at her seriously with one eye.
“You owed a life debt to me. But we both know that has long since been repaid. You served as my wings. But those have returned.” She flapped them, stirring the sleeping fairies within the tree leaves. “You are not a servant. You are my companion. I think of you as an equal.”
He ruffled his feathers and stood straighter.
“If you choose to stay, then one daughter is all you shall ever have.”
He nodded and tapped his beak on the staff’s jewel.
“I was not raised as a Dark Fae, I do not know their rituals. However, I was raised near humans, so I understand theirs. And traditionally. There is this.” She tipped the staff so that she could kiss the top of his head.
Before she pulled back, he morphed himself into a human. Taller than her, he head-butted her on accident. He grabbed at her waist when she stumbled. Now he had to look down to meet her eyes.
“True love’s kiss might have been to Aurora’s brow, but that is not how you kiss a mate, Maleficent.”
He slipped his hand to the nape of her neck. Swiftly, he lifted her into a kiss where their lips met.
The drowsy, leaf-winged fairies had only seen this once before. They’d been prompted to take flight when Phillip and Aurora had kissed after his proposal. Assuming that something similar was happening, they scattered into the air while chattering happily amongst themselves. They had long been waiting for their leader to find happiness.
Hands tangled in each other’s hair, mouths preoccupied, eyes closed, the couple hadn’t noticed their audience until the Dark Fae stopped their music in favor of clapping. There were shouts of joy at the Phoenix finally claiming a partner. One of the fae jokingly asked, “Does that make us an unkindess?”
“Why couldn’t you be a lark?” Maleficent whispered, tucking her face against Diaval’s neck. “An exaltation seems more fitting for that crowd.”
“Really? I thought you’d prefer me a crow. Murder would be more appropriate for us.”
“Come on. That’s funny,” Diaval said before leading her back toward the celebration.