A Murder of Crows

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The Lady Crawford

Six years came and passed and Lady Rosalia still remained strong. She was now vying with Lord Sinclair as one of the strongest power in Galadier, with her lands stretching along the borders of Galadier and the kingdom of Vurya.

But Rosalia had very little interest in their neighbours in Vurya.

Her main goal was to unite the lands of Galadier under the Crawford name and that was where her focus laid.

It also seemed like a terrible strategy to nip away on the toes of a stronger, stable empire. She hadn’t a doubt in her mind that if Vurya ever thought her an irritation that had to be dealt with, they could easily destroy her without great losses.

That unseasonably warm afternoon saw her in her throne room, just after her usual audience with her people.

It was hot, and she was dozing, having just a moment of peace before her next appointment. She was sweating a little from the heat and it didn’t help that she was constantly dressed in black.

Pegleg, her favourite one-legged crow, was perched on the armrest, cocking its head this way and that as it watched her.

The crows lived freely in Crawford with the Crow Keeper looking after their needs in the city of Crawburgh.

Pegleg’s head swivelled round to look at the large doors.

As the doors opened, it cawed loudly, hopping up and down the armrest and puffing up its feathers.

The guard stepped into the room as Rosalia sat up again and petted the squawking crow idly with a finger to calm it down.

“What is it?” she asked.

Her voice was quiet.

It usually was, even in anger.

The only time anyone heard her voice raised was in the battlefield.

“Forgive me, my lady, I know you’re resting- but a Thomas Bauer has begged for an audience with my lady,” the guard said with a bow.

Rosalia let Pegleg jump onto her lap as she frowned a little.

“Beg?” she repeated, “Very well, show him in.”

The guard nodded and allowed the man in.

The man, probably a farmer from the sight of his hands and the mud on his worn boots, shuffled into the hall, looking scared but determined. He was dressed shabbily but they were no doubt, his best clothes that his wife had carefully patched and washed for him.

“Please your ladyship-“

“Come closer, Master Bauer,” Rosalia said in the same calm, soft manner.

The man obeyed, approaching the dais but he jumped when he spotted Rosalia’s two guards appear from behind her throne.

But still, he swallowed nervously and knelt on the ground.

“Please your ladyship,” he repeated, “I represent the farmers in the town of Florsdale-“

“Let me guess, there has been far too much rain this season and the crops do not suffice,” she finished.

“I- y-yes, my lady.”

Rosalia sighed quietly, “You are not the first to come forward with this dilemma, Master Bauer, in fact, you seem a touch late to the party,” she told him, tickling Pegleg’s beak.

“We- We tried, my lady, to make do with what we had. But we fear it will not be sufficient for our town to make it through winter this year,” the man said, still looking determined.

Rosalia looked down at the crow who was nibbling on her finger.

“The reserves are already open,” she said, beckoning the chamberlain, “Find out the requirements of the town of Florsdale and bring them what they need,” she ordered before nodding to one of the manservants, “Give this man a bath, food and a bed for tonight. It seems like he is in desperate need of them.”

“Yes, my lady.”

The relief of Thomas Bauer’s face was clear as he bowed as low as he could, “Thank you, my lady! Thank you!”

Rosalia smiled a little as Darkling, another crow landed on the back of her throne, “It is my duty to see that my people are cared for, Master Bauer,” she said, “The people of Florsdale have proven themselves to be vital in feeding the lands of Crawford for over a decade. In your time of need, it would only be fair to return the favour.”

The man continued to bow as he was led out of the hall.

“Kind as ever, my lady,” her personal guard, Alexis commented.

Rosalia shut her eyes once more and leaned back in her seat as Pegleg scolded Darkling for something, “Do I hear a touch of disapproval in your tone, Alex?” she asked.

“I would never disapprove of your decisions, your ladyship,” he replied.

“Not if he knows what’s good for him anyway,” Raven added with a smile.

Darking cawed and hopped onto Rosalia shoulder, prompting Pegleg to scold it for taking up his usual place.

“My power comes from the masses,” she said, shushing Pegleg, “It’s important I have their continued and unwavering support. As father said, keeping their loyalty is a balancing game. They need to fear, love and respect me. I need the right measure of kindness and distance.”

“This is why you keep driving men away, my lady,” Raven commented.

“Why don’t the two of you go back to skulking behind my seat again so I can nap in peace?” Rosalia retorted, resting her head back, “I need to go inspect the fortifications later.”

“Of course my lady.”

Darking jumped down to jostle with Pegleg for a place on Rosalia’s lap.

*

Rosalia was a woman who had very little patience for frills, preferring to focus on her work rather than her appearance. It was something she had picked up from her trainers when she was a young child.

That early evening saw her dressed in worn armour, like most of the guards and was riding upon a chestnut horse. The only two things she had on her person that told of her station in life was the beautifully crafted ornate sword that she wore on her belt and the signet ring she wore on her thumb, as it was too big for her fingers.

The sword was a family heirloom and had been soaked in blood countless times, even before Rosalia inherited it but still remained perfectly polished and sharpened to the point it shone like a mirror but cut through flesh like water.

Rosalia dismounted her horse and went to speak to one of the engineers behind the projects as well as the builders who were present. They were beginning to clear up after the day’s work.

The workers were polite to their ladyship but were as blunt and truthful as always which was what Rosalia wanted.

There was a group of guards who accompanied Rosalia whenever she left the castle grounds but Raven and Alexis were the ones with her every moment of the day no matter where she was.

At the moment, they remained by her side, acutely aware of everything about them.

Their mistress always insisted on going out personally to see to things. It caused the guards and soldiers a great deal strain. Especially considering she still had no heir of her own should anything become of her.

And also the people of Galadier were a superstitious lot.

It was Rosalia who was specified by the crows to lead Crawford to victory.

She could not meet an untimely end before then.

*

“You are getting on in age, my lady,” Raven commented that night as Rosalia had her evening bath.

Rosalia frowned, lifting her head from the edge of the copper tub, “I beg your pardon?” she asked. She was lounging in the hot, soapy water, one of her long pale legs swinging lazily out its side.

“For marriage, my lady,” Raven went on to clarify, standing by the tub with a towel that had been warming by the fire, “You’re twenty, my lady- long past due for marriage,” he explained.

“He’s right, your ladyship,” Alexis said from the other side of the door, “Most nobles would be married with a horde of noblets running amok about this age,” he said, “Lady Melanie married his lordship at sixteen.”

Rosalia gave a small smile as she stepped out of the tub, “Are you offering, Alex?” she asked, picking up a bucket to pour clean water over herself to rinse herself off.

Raven grinned as Alexis started spluttering from outside the bathroom.

“I was jesting, calm down,” she called to him, putting the bucket down.

Raven wrapped the towel around her and stepped back to let her dry herself off as the maids went to work to clean up the bathroom.

“In all seriousness, my lady,” Alexis said as Rosalia walked out of the bathroom to head to her bedchambers, “You need to start looking for suitors. You need an heir.”

He walked after them, keeping his eyes squeezed shut.

“Well, then can’t I just sleep with someone and be done with it?” Rosalia wanted to know.

Raven shook his head as he laid out her nightshirt on the foot of the bed, “You need marriage, my lady,” he said, going over to help her dry her hair, “A husband and a family.”

“You mean a weakness and a target?” Rosalia corrected handing him the towel and going to put on her nightshirt.

Raven went to lay the towel aside to dry and tapped Alexis’ shoulder to signal he could look around once more.

The two guards exchanged looks.

“My lady… what happened to your family won’t necessarily happen to you as well,” Raven said gently as she climbed into her bed, “We learnt from our mistake. We know how to keep it from happening again.”

Rosalia scowled, irritated as she pulled the bed hangings aside climbed into the large bed, “Fine,” she said flatly, “If you can find a man mad enough to wish to marry into my household and is not a power maniac or an assassin, then feel free to start arranging the marriage,” she told them.

She rolled over in her bed and hid her head under one of the pillows.

Raven and Alexis exchanged looks as the latter went to extinguish the lamps, “So… does this mean we were just ordered to find her ladyship a suitor?” Alexis asked Raven, unsure.

“I believe it was simply a suggestion on my lady’s part to stop us from pestering her further,” Raven said, drawing the quilt over Rosalia and getting to his own pallet on the floor by the window.

Alexis picked up the crow that had been using his bedclothes as a nest and tossed it onto her ladyship’s bed, “Yes or no are we supposed to look for a suitor for her ladyship?” he asked.

“Yes, you are both are supposed to stop talking when I’m trying to sleep,” Rosalia’s muffled voice snapped from under the pillows.

“Yes my lady,” the two answered at once.

There was quiet in the dark room now.

Rosalia shut her eyes, feeling the familiar pain in her chest.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

It was fine.

She was going to be fine.

*

Days passed as Rosalia continued her duties. Alexis and Raven accompanied her as always, to war meetings, audiences with her people, walks through the town and to the front lines, defending the northwest borders from Lord Keegan’s men.

Her commanders and council wasn’t fond of the last one.

They were aware how much her presence boosted the morale of the soldiers in battle but it was another thing entirely for her to actually fight in the battle itself. And in that battle, she gained yet another new injury that would later leave a scar to her existing collection.

But meanwhile, Healer Emwik had given her the order to rest.

And both her guards decided to take the opportunity to bring up the topic of her marriage again.

“You’re both doing this because I can’t escape, aren’t you?” Rosalia asked bitterly as she fed the crows some bread.

Healer Emwik scowled at Pegleg perched on her knee and shooed it away so that he could continue to tend to the stab wound on her shoulder.

“My lady, for goodness sake, please remain calm and quiet,” he told her impatiently, pressing the ointment into the injury.

“Ow!”

“There we go, my lady,” he said, binding the wound, “And in future, Lady Rosalia, please do not ride all the way back before seeing a proper healer. I do not wish to have to amputate your arm. At least have Guardsman Raven see to your injuries as soon as possible after receiving them,” he told her.

“Yes, yes,” Rosalia replied, “Thank you healer.”

“Try not to get it wet,” he warned, “And try not to strain yourself.”

“Understood.”

The healer left to attend to his other duties as Rosalia continued to feed the crows that were surrounded her seat in the courtyard.

“So, my lady, regarding the matter of the suitors-“

“Oh goddess have mercy,” Rosalia muttered under her breath, letting Pegleg hop up onto her knee once more.

Rosalia seemed to be under the impression that Pegleg, as he had only one leg, would have difficulty fending for himself. So she often handfed him and Pegleg, having no issue with being spoilt, would make sure to perch nearby.

“We found a few men who are… well- they seem acceptable. A guard, a couple of hunters… a mercenary…”

“No, no and no,” Rosalia said.

“Perhaps if her ladyship gave more specific instructions on who you’re searching for, then we would know what to look for,” Alexis said.

They had simply looked for men who could probably keep up with her ladyships rather active lifestyle.

“How about Pegleg?” she asked, picking up the crow with one hand. It mouthed her thumb in return.

“My lady, please take this seriously.

She let the crow go.

“I don’t even know what my preference is, Alex. Besides- I’m too busy for this.”

Just as she spoke, a messenger came forward, “My lady,” he said, “Bailiff Williams wishes to speak to you.”

“There you have it,” Rosalia said, getting to her feet and wincing before she set Pegleg down gently on the seat she had just vacated, “I’ll meet him in my study,” she told the messenger.

“Yes, my lady.”

*

Time passed as Rosalia’s injury started healing.

The weather in Crawburgh seemed to have changed drastically overnight and it was a cold morning when Rosalia was taking a break from the mound of documents on her desk. She had spent the last few hours going over the accounts of her lands and approving the budgets for the following year.

It was dull work and she sorely needed a short break.

She sat by the window of her study, watching the crows on the roof across from the courtyard torment one another with their usual mischief.

Rosalia smiled.

The little creatures were simply tricksters through and through and she loved watching them.

There were still a number of documents to look through but her shoulder was getting stiff anyway so at least she had an excuse to give herself for the break.

There were guards stationed outside her study but at the moment, Alexis and Raven were not about.

It was times like those, when she was safe and well guarded, that Alexis and Raven would take a well-deserved break.

The two were a little older than her and they had grown up by her side, first as playmates and friends, and then as guards.

Both their families have been serving the Crawford family for countless generations and still did.

Now they were both her closest companions and her most loyal guards.

Which was why she had yet to strangled them both for their constant insistence on a husband.

A rattling caw interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to see a crow.

“Oh- Blackie,” she greeted, letting it hop into her study and help itself to the grapes from the dish, “Ah well- if it’s worth anything, at least I have the crows,” she said, going back to her desk to work with Blackie keeping her company.

The crow ate a few more grapes before wandering over to her work.

It watched with intelligent black eyes as she dipped her quill in ink and signed a document, cocking its head from side to side.

After a moment, the crow seemed to put two and two together and decided that it would be an absolutely magnificent idea to thoroughly get in the way by dabbing its claws in ink and marching across the documents. After all, if she could make marks on the paper, so could it.

“Blackie no!”

The crow cawed and started hopping about the desk, causing her to clear space for it to reduce the damage.

“Stop it you!” she ordered but the crow flapped its wings and got ink on them instead.

It continued to wickedly roll about, causing absolute chaos, dodging her attempts to grab it.

“That’s enough!” she ordered before breaking into a coughing fit.

The guard outside looked in at once, “My lady?”

Rosalia coughed again, shaking her head, “I’m fine,” she told him, her breathing suddenly harsh and painful as she poured herself some water.

“Shall I get Healer Emwik?” he offered.

“No- it’s just a tickle in my throat from the dust,” she told him, “I’m perfectly fine.”

Blackie cawed at the guard and jumped up onto Rosalia’s good shoulder, getting ink on her shirt as well.

*

“You caused me a lot of trouble today,” Rosalia told the crow that she was holding, clamped under her arm as she headed towards her private dining room with Alexis and Raven.

The ink on her clothes was easier to hide as she dressed in black but now she had ink stains all over her arms and she could feel the ink in her hair, which meant a bath for her that evening.

The crow tried to struggle in her grip as she got a handkerchief from a maid to wipe some of the ink off it as well.

“You’re a bloody mess, you know that? Now go mess up something else and leave me alone,” she told it, releasing it out a window they were walking pass.

The crow fluttered off as Rosalia took another handkerchief from the maid to wipe the ink off her face. She heard the crow caw and swear the curst thing was laughing at her.

“Thank you, Alice,” she said, handing the handkerchiefs back to her.

“So, did my lady get any work done?” Alexis asked, “At all? Or were you playing with Blackie the whole time?”

“I was not playing,” she said with a scowl, “And I did. But I may have to finish lunch quickly so I can continue working. Not to mention I need to have new copies made of a few of my documents,” she said with a sigh, rubbing the back of her neck.

“Did Blackie mark them all, my lady?” Raven asked, taking another clean handkerchief from Alice to wipe of some ink on the back of Rosalia’s neck.

“Blackie got a few of them, but he also soiled some of the account reports and tried shredding a budget list to make a nest,” Rosalia explained, scowling.

Raven tried not to laugh.

“I take it you’re considering lifting the ban on killing the crows now?” he wanted to know.

“Yes,” she answered, still annoyed, “In fact, I may as well offer a reward for them as well.”

Lunch was a fairly quick affair, allowing Rosalia returned to her study to work. She told Raven and Alexis to take another break as she wasn’t going anywhere at the moment.

She worked steadily on until her shoulder injury started stinging again.

It took awhile but she finally gave up and put the quill away.

She’d have to deal with them the next day since the pain was simply causing her irritation.

She left the study and the guards stationed outside looked at her in surprise, “My lady?” one said.

“I’m going to visit the family tomb,” Rosalia told them both, “I don’t need an escort for that,” she added when they moved to follow her.

“But my lady-“

“I’ll be fine. It’s within the compounds of the castle,” she said, “Return to your duties.”

“I-… yes my lady,” the guards said, with no other choice but to obey.

Raven and Alexis were the only ones who selectively disobeyed her ladyship’s order when they felt the need to.

Rosalia strode towards the eastern part of the castle grounds where the family cemetery was located.

Each morning, the tombs would be greeted with the kiss of the warm rising sun, surrounded by trees and nesting crows.

Her mother was the first to be placed to rest in the newest marble tomb. Thirteen years later, her father and brothers joined her abruptly after that fateful night.

Rosalia always found the peace in the tomb and necropolis of the city.

As the head of the Crawford household, it meant she had been trained and raised as a priestess of the Goddess Noctis.

She spent quite a lot of her childhood wandering through the tombs and cemeteries with the other priests and priestesses to learn her duties.

She found comfort there now.

A caw made her look up.

It was Pegleg watching her from the opening near the roof.

“Oh no,” Rosalia said at once, “I had enough of you lot today. Do you have any idea how much grief and trouble Blackie caused me already?” she demanded, glaring at the bird.

Pegleg ignored her warning and flapped down. It was fully aware that Rosalia worried needlessly over it, terrified that it would hurt itself, especially when attempting a landing with only one leg.

She caught him at once and scowled, “I swear by the goddess, you lot do this on purpose.”

Pegleg nestled in her arms and puffed itself up again, trying to get itself comfortable.

Rosalia cradled the crow in one arm and stepped into the tomb, her leather boots clicking against the marble floor.

It was cold and quiet in the tomb.

Each coffin was made of white marble and was protected by the spread wings of a carved crow.

Her father, Lord Devin Crawford, the previous head of the household had two crows marking his standing, one at the head and another at the foot of his marble coffin, their wingtips reaching out to touch one another.

Rosalia carefully repositioned Pegleg on her good shoulder so she could start clearing up the dead flowers as such from her family coffins.

As she cleaned up, she started coughing again, the sound echoing through the room to the high ceilings.

“I’ll bring some fresh flowers the next time I visit,” she promised, carefully picking off the fallen petal from the foot of the coffin where her father’s name was inscribed.

As usual, she was only answered by silence.

With the chore completed, she went to kneel down on the cushion facing the Goddess Noctis’ statue to pray.

Pegleg jumped off her shoulder and fluttered up onto the marble figure’s shoulder instead.

It was quite comfortable there.

After all, the crows were said to belong to the Goddess Noctis.

It watched Rosalia, cocking its head this way and that as she prayed quietly, her eyes shut.

It fluttered her wings then turned to the door, hearing a familiar sound.

“My lady!” Alexis said sounding nearly furious as he and Raven stumbled into the tomb.

They had found her absent from her study when they returned to remind her to take a rest and the guards pointed them to the family tomb. They had proceeded to run the whole way there.

Raven quickly shushed Alexis when he saw her ladyship praying.

“Oh goddess,” Alexis muttered, catching his breath back, “If she were not our lady and our charge, I’d strangle her,” he said angrily, “What on earth did she think she was doing going off on her own?”

“Calm down, will you?” Raven replied, “Let’s just wait outside while her ladyship finishes her prayers. Come on- just grant her a moment of privacy. If you really feel the need to, you can always chew her out later. If she listens to you, that would be a different matter entirely.”

Alexis left after Raven, grumbling and muttering under his breath.

“Why are you being so upset for?” Raven asked, “She’s still in the castle grounds and no one is admitted in without the highest clearance. Every stranger in the city has a close eye watching them.”

The younger man rubbed the back of his neck with a scowl, “I don’t like it when I don’t know where she is,” he said, “After what happened to her family, you can’t blame me for getting a bit worried about her.”

Raven looked at him and thought about it for a moment.

He always wondered…

“If…” he started but then shook his head, “Never mind,” he said.

Alexis looked at him, “If what?” he asked.

“It’s nothing.”

“You never bring something up if it’s nothing,” he pointed out, “Go on- what is it?”

“I was just wondering, if her ladyship decides to wed you-“

Alex made a strange noise, “What?!” he said, looking both shocked and flabbergasted by the very thought of it.

“I was merely wondering,” Raven said, “She did mention it once before-“

“Her ladyship said that she was jesting,” he reminded, still red in the face, “And such a thing will not happen. I am her guard. Besides I-“ he said, looking at him but faltering suddenly, “I- never mind,” he finished, looking away, his ears red.

Raven smiled a little, “There’s no need to get so worked up over it,” he said, “Besides, I was simply wondering what kind of man would be able to handle being married to her ladyship. She can be quite intimidating.”

“Well, I suppose someone to match her personality would be for the best,” Alexis said fairly.

“Are you sure? I think they’d both grow irritated with one another,” Raven said, “And her ladyship will rule. A strong headed man may not be pleased to have to constantly bow to the commands of his wife.”

“You have a point,” Alexis said with a sigh, “But a weak-willed one may be far too intimidated by her ladyship for them to form a bond.”

“I don’t think we’ll be able to find a man in Galadier who wouldn’t be intimidated by her ladyship,” Raven reasoned, “I mean, stories of her run far and wide.”

Alexis thought about it, “She needs… well- someone pragmatic,” he said at last, “Someone who’s solid and calm. Better yet- someone who isn’t doesn’t have expensive taste. I don’t think her ladyship would approve of someone who marries her simply to be in control of the Crawford funds.”

“This is going to be harder than we thought it would be.”

“Without a doubt.”

Raven thought about it.

“What about Master Bauer?”

“For goodness sake, no,” Alexis said at once, “Let’s look for someone her age as well. Master Bauer is over fifteen years her senior.”

“So? Nothing wrong with that.”

“It just seems wiser if we get someone her ladyship’s age,” Alexis said stubbornly.

A watchman came running over, stopping with a bow, “Guardsman Raven. Guardsman Alexis. Is my lady present?”

“Yes, she’s praying at the moment. Leave her be.”

“Yes sirs, but a suspicious man has just been arrested. He almost managed to enter the city without alerting the guards,” he reported, “They moved him to the dungeons for now with Jailer Fredrik.”

“Take me to him.”

Rosalia had appeared at the doorway, making her guards jump in surprise.

“Yes, my lady.

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