The Virtues of Magpies

Once in a border keep where the winters were tempest-winged and the sun never appeared without robes of violet clouds, there lived a youth who liked to feed the birds. In particular they were fond of magpies with their sleek black-and-white plumage and their cheery cries. Other people who lived in the keep viewed the magpies with scorn, for they were said to bring chancy luck at best, and they made a racket in the mornings. Or during any time of day.

Nevertheless, the youth insisted on continuing to save morsels for the magpies. As time passed and the youth grew closer to adulthood, they came to be blamed for the magpies’ antics, and the keep elders greeted them with cuffs and curses. The youth only said that even tricksters deserved to eat, and continued to wheedle crusts of bread or handfuls of seed from the kitchens.

Once the magpies stole all the keep’s light, from the flames dancing in the lanterns to the gleam of starlight upon spearpoint and armor-joint, and scattered the flicker-tapestry in the nearby wood, with the result that no one could see a thing for the next two nights, until the enchantment dissolved. Squirrels gnawed at the tapestry and undid the spell-strands. But by then the magpies, had lost interest anyway.

Another time the magpies switched the voice of the keep’s great warning bell with the voice of the keep’s chantmaster, which everyone found out on the morning of devotions. The chantmaster had to be restrained from hunting down the youth and deafening them with the clangor. (Deafening everyone, really.) The youth, who had acquired a certain storm-sense for magpie tricks, had elected to spend the day holed up in a well-insulated section of the library with some hastily-made sandwiches.

Most notorious of all was the time when the magpies switched left and right, which played havoc with everything from a dinner of state—the keep was hosting a delegation from a country where it was taboo to use the left hand to eat with—to the warmasters’ drills, to say nothing of everyone getting lost and books having to be read in mirrors. Even then the youth persisted in their affection for the magpies, and passed the birds baubles of bead or bright thread for their nests. (In secret. They weren’t so indiscreet.)

Yet when invaders came riding from the high hills, the magpies proved surprisingly useful. No one but the youth would have guessed it of them. The magpies filched the edges from the invaders’ swords and placed them on the rocks underfoot: instant caltrops. They snagged scraps of cloud from the sky-heights and clogged the invaders’ helmets with them, making it impossible to see or speak clearly. And they rearranged the countryside so that east was west and north was south, a swirl of misdirection with the keep at its inaccessible center.

Afterward, when the invasion force retired in disarray, the lady of the keep came to tender the magpies and their youth an apology. The magpies’ response was to braid a cage of crickets into her hair. The lady gritted her teeth, smiled, and accepted that the magpies’ nature could not be changed, so the least she could do was accept it gracefully. As for the youth, they were conspicuously absent during the exchange, but they were later seen napping in a corner, with several watchful magpies perched on their shoulders to make sure the chantmaster didn’t remember old grudges.

For Storme. Prompt: tricksters, loyalty.