Thirteen-year-old Lady Serapia Ravena has lived as an urchin on the streets of London since her mother’s death. Thrown from the house by her uncle, her only companion is her strange little pet, the ‘lizard chick’ Raven. Her only hope is a ring, and her mother’s dying command, ‘find the Duke of Albany’. But she has sought him in vain for years.
When the elusive Duke suddenly returns to the city, Serapia finds a loving father, and a wealthy, powerful one too. He thwarts her uncle’s murderous plans, and her life seems to have righted itself, with only happiness in store.
But it soon becomes clear that her father hides a dark secret, one that threatens his very life, and his very soul. The search for his salvation will carry Serapia hundreds of leagues, to the heart of the wild places, and to the fort of the elfin, bringing her face to face with her own mysterious heritage.
‘I was instantly drawn in’ – EOIN COLFER, author of Artemis Fowl
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Read the excerpt for more!
I was hungry. So hungry that most eleven-year-old girls of my rank would have been crying, throwing a tantrum, or fainting. Perhaps all three. Not me. I was thinking what to do about my hunger. I began each day with the same all-consuming thought.
I sat on a thin blanket under the overhang of an old, crooked stone house. I had to bend my head to sit up, but I scarcely registered the minor discomfort. Rain splashed from the eaves to the cobbles of the street only a few feet in front of my nose, but under here it was fairly dry; a good sleeping place. I contemplated the various possible solutions to this particular morning’s hunger, until a tiny scuffling noise preceded a whiskered nose from a narrow crack in the wall. When I remained motionless, the rat scurried almost soundlessly to the side of the blanket, attracted by a few crumbs so tiny even I hadn’t noticed them.
My hands shot out and seized the rat, wrapping around its plump body. Ignoring the squealing and the snapping teeth, I gripped the head and twisted, feeling the sudden give as the vertebrae in its neck parted company. Laying the twitching rodent beside me, a rare smile snuck onto my face.
So early in the morning and I had already acquired my day’s meal! I would take the rat down to the Scrinny Lane cookhouse, where I would skin it, cook it, and eat it. The bones would go to Old Joe the gluemaker as payment; the skin to the skin man in return for a precious half copper. In the new language I had learned since my mother’s death, a half copper equaled a piece of bread. If I was extravagant, I would eat it for supper. Otherwise it would go some way towards staving off the hunger on the morrow.
The smile fading, I shuffled to one side, picked up the blanket and knotted it around my shoulders like a cloak. The rat I tucked out of sight in my jacket. Its body still jerked slightly, still refused the truth. I wriggled out into the street, straightened and froze.
Two urchins stood waiting. Unlike me, who merely dressed as a boy, these were actual boys, bigger than I. Born in the gutter and never slept on a feather bed in their lives. They would cut my throat for the rat.
“We heard a squeaking,” said one boy, holding out a hand, his eyes cold.
“Do you see anything?” I said—running even before I had finished speaking.
The boys followed close on my heels. So close that when my bare foot slipped from under me on a slimy cobblestone the first was on me immediately. As I fell I caught sight of a mangy dog lurking by the side of the street. I struck the ground painfully, one hand already inside my jacket. The boy landed on top of me, a knife appearing in his hand like magic. Dragging the rat free I flung it towards the dog, which moved in a brown streak. The urchin had a choice of cutting my throat or getting the rat. It was no choice at all; he was already in mid-air after the meal. Back on my feet even as the rat struck the ground, I bolted.
I stopped in the comparative shelter of a lopsided building, wet, tired and sore. I didn’t bother contemplating the downturn in the day’s fortunes, too busy checking over my clothing. My knees and elbow were badly bruised, but nothing was torn, so I headed for a disreputable inn I knew where the landlord did not keep a porter on and usually allowed me to earn a few pence carrying the luggage.
When I arrived, the cheap coach was throwing out a passenger at the door. It was nothing personal; that was just how the cheap coaches went about things. The passenger, having gained the cobbles, ducked as his two cases were thrown down beside him. The coachman flogged his broken-down horses for a good few seconds before they were convinced to move and the coach swayed unsteadily away through the wet streets of London town.
I was already in motion. Stopping beside the passenger I put on my stolid, dependable expression and, with a tug of my forelock, took hold of the cases.
“I’ll get those, sir,” I said, in my feigned gutter accent. Was it really feigned? When had I last spoken as myself?
The traveler did not want to spend money on a bag boy, I could tell. He had planned to carry them quickly into the inn himself. Recoiling from appearing miserly when actually put to it, with a poor attempt at grace he gave me a curt nod and entered the inn, looking back only three times to check the luggage was following.
I dragged the heavy cases up the stairs, appreciating why the man had ducked their descent from the coach top. But my scrawny frame was up to it, and I set them down carefully in the room and waited. I only ever stuck my hand out as a last resort, it frequently seemed to do more harm than good. The traveler noticed my continued presence with a flash of irritation, dug a coin from his purse and threw it in my general direction.
I caught it and left quickly. It was a good-sized copper, and I was hungry enough that I went straight down to the inn kitchen and swapped it for a half copper and a chunk of bread. Retreating to the inn courtyard to eat my meal and watch for the next traveler, I eyed another urchin lingering there. Did he also have the landlord’s permission to carry bags?
The bread was finished all too quickly, as always, and I sat wishing another traveler would arrive. More at that moment for the distraction from my own thoughts, than for the coin I could earn. Only when I had some amount of food in my belly was I troubled by thoughts of the future. It was the only time I could afford to be.
I had lasted three years on the streets, three long, painful years since my mother died and my uncle threw me from the place that had always been my home.
“Be gone, witch child,” he’d snarled at me, “or I’ll duck you in the pond till you’re clean and cold.”
Even at eight years old I’d recognized a death threat when I heard one and I hadn’t tried to go back. Of course, I had always known my uncle hated me, but to be thrown from my own home to what should’ve been almost certain death? It had been utterly unexpected. The house in which my uncle now lived was mine, was it not? My rank came to me from my mother and there was nothing legal to take the property away from me.
Legally, though, my uncle was my guardian. No doubt he assumed me dead long since and it was a fair assumption. Serapion the urchin had no more chance of reclaiming what belonged to Lady Serapia Ravena than the morning’s rat had of breathing again.
In fact, Serapion the urchin had only one chance in the world and it was tied around my waist, carefully concealed under my clothing…
I looked up as the kitchen staff burst from the doorway, chattering excitedly to one another and followed by the cook, who swept something ahead of her with an expression of grim courage. They were calling for the landlord and I darted over to see what the to-do was about, slipping to the front. I’d have seized any distraction.
The heap of ash was tipped over the doorstep onto the cobbles of the yard. The landlord came striding out of the building even as I crouched to peer more closely at the tiny creature floundering weakly in the midst of the soot. As grey as ash, it resembled a bird, for it had a curved, beaky upper lip and a pair of little things that were clearly undeveloped wings on its back. But it was entirely featherless and had two tiny front paws, just now making feeble movements in the ash. Fragments of broken, blackened eggshell lay around it, showing it to be newborn. Or rather, new-hatched. I had never seen anything so intriguing.
“A demon-creature, sir, a demon-creature in the fire…”
“I was sweeping out the grate, sir, and I sees it…”
“It ain’t nat’ral, sir, ain’t right…”
“Shall we have a priest, sir? Don’t like the thought of it otherwise…”
A priest? Whatever for? I’d sensed evil often enough, and there was nothing of it here. But I’d learned long ago that other people just didn’t seem able to sense things as I could. Even my mother couldn’t. I had stopped mentioning my strange sensitivity only a short time after learning how to talk about it at all.
The landlord leant over to scrutinize the ‘demon-creature’. “Evilest looking blighter I ever did see,” he pronounced, “but soon sorted.” He raised his foot. His intent was obvious.
The baby animal raised its head and peered around with a pair of huge golden eyes. It gave a little cough and a cloud of ash came from its beak. It must be half choked. Without even considering it, I reached out and snatched it from the path of the landlord’s foot.
The assembled group turned a look of astonishment on me and the landlord swelled with rage. “You impudent little…” He took a step towards me.
For the second time that day, I ran for my life. Or in this case, the life of the creature I held pressed to my chest. I would survive a beating, it would not.
The landlord did not pursue me beyond his inn gates, but his furious shout followed, ringing in my ears. “If you ever come back…”
An inn without a porter was rare. One where I was trusted to carry bags was rarer still. I had lost the closest thing to a real job I had ever achieved, and for what? A deformed chick? I must be mad. Panting and heart pounding, I slipped into an alley and sank down on the cobbles to take a closer look at just what I had saved.
My hands were filthy with soot and the chick, or whatever it was, still grey, so that must be its natural color. It could not be a chick, I realized, as I looked more closely. Apart from its four legs it also had a tail, a very lizard-like tail. Its little, clawed front feet scrabbled gently at my thumb in a way that reminded me of a mouse. It could hold things in them, I suspected. It was, I concluded with a sense of shock, some rare exotic creature from across the seas. How its egg had come to end up in the inn fireplace was a question I did not even bother pondering. But if it was rare and from far away, then it was worth an enormous amount of money.
I looked at the tiny thing again. It fitted snugly in my palm, leathery hide soft against my skin. I’d never get close enough to the nobility to sell it for a pet. I’d have to sell to a middleman and it would go to an apothecary to be dried and powdered for potions. And much as I usually ignored the fact, I was terribly, achingly lonely. The creature raised its head again and gave another little cough, and I knew I could not sell it. It was mine and I would keep it. It would not eat much.
Talking of food… I looked again at my new companion in distress. It would need milk, or something… I tucked it securely inside my jacket for warmth and set off once more along the streets. Climbing up some abandoned scaffolding to the rooftops, I entered the attic of a deserted house through a hole in the roof. The rotten floor groaned under my weight, but I moved lightly to a pile of old rugs in a dry area of the room. There, curled in a little nest, lay a cat and her five kittens. The mother cat regarded me warily with yellow eyes, but did not run or move to attack. The cat and I had shared the loft on many a night.
Now I put my handful down carefully at the edge of the nest and crouched there, watching, ready to snatch it back out if the cat tried to harm it. This was a very long shot, and I knew it. The creature was unlikely to know how to get to the food on its own, for one thing, and the mother cat might try to savage it if it got close. I’d probably have to catch the cat and hold her down while carefully guiding the lizard-chick to the teat. But I wouldn’t do it immediately when there was just the feeblest chance I wouldn’t have to shatter the trust that existed between us.
The lizard-chick peered around, coughing again. Its babyish gaze travelled from me to the mother cat and it swayed forward unsteadily, opening its beaky mouth again to let out a soft, quavering cry not unlike those of the kittens. The mother cat went on watching me, seeming scarcely aware of the intruder now easing its way slowly, but persistently, in among her brood. Finally the lizard-chick’s mouth closed around a teat and it began to swallow. Every so often it released its mouthful to give the kittenish cry again. The cat still did not react.
I watched in something close to wonderment. The mother cat hadn’t noticed the interloper, of that I felt sure, and the back of my neck prickled in the way I associated with my odd senses. My new pet intrigued me more and more.
Although I usually avoided staying in the same sleeping place for more than one night at a time, I remained in the loft for over a week. By then, desperate to sleep elsewhere, I began to consider coming to the loft in the daytime to let my pet feed. But my problem was solved when my casual offering of a crumb of bread was eagerly swallowed by the lizard-chick.
“You don’t need milk any more, huh?” I said, stroking under the soft leathery chin. “Well, time for a name, I suppose…”
I turned my pet around in my hands. I had already established as well as I could that the lizard-chick was female, something most young noblewomen could not have done. Now I considered the question of a name. The baby was still a uniform grey all over, apart from her beautiful golden eyes.
“You are quite like a bird,” I mused softly. “And you’re mine. I’m a Ravena, in name, at least. Ravens are black not grey, but you’re close, and there are girl ravens as well as boy ravens. I’ll call you Raven. Then you’re part of me.”
Corinna Turner has been writing since she was fourteen and likes strong protagonists with plenty of integrity. She has an MA in English from Oxford University, but has foolishly gone on to work with both children and animals! Juggling work with the disabled and being a midwife to sheep, she spends as much time as she can in a little hut at the bottom of the garden, writing. She is a Catholic Christian with roots in the Methodist and Anglican churches. A keen cinema-goer, she lives in the UK with her classic campervan ‘Toby’ (short for Tobias!), her larger and more expensive substitute for her lovely Giant African Land Snail, Peter, who sadly passed away in October 2016.