A Murder of Crows

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The Crows

Despite Rosalia’s initial misgivings, the arrangement went on quite well for the following couple of months.

Winter soon came by and snow fell, thick and heavy, covering the lands in quiet and cold.

Rosalia had a difficult time settling for winter whenever it came by.

It was the one time of year when the warlords ceased their attacks on one another.

It wasn’t a truce of any sort.

It was simply bad tactics to attack at the time of year.

The Crawford’s lands were to well defended and her enemies had learnt quickly that it was futile to attack her lands even when the elements worked against them.

So that meant Rosalia did not have to be constantly concerned over a potential attack along her borders.

However, she was used to the battles and during winters, she was unsure what to do with herself. So instead, she busied herself with preparations for the following year as well as the current concerns of her people.

She also spent a great deal of her time sparring and training with her guards and soldiers as she did every winter.

But this year, she also had the added task of studying under Guiscard’s tutorship.

Guiscard had started giving her private lessons two days a week as he spent the other four days teaching others in the city. He taught a manageable class of folk who would later become teachers themselves, thus starting proper teaching arrangements in Crawford.

It would begin in Crawburgh and later, when more teachers were available, they would spread out to the other towns and villagers.

That morning, Guiscard gave her a short break as he looked over her work.

Rosalia herself took advantage of the break to recline on a lounge to play with the crows.

He glanced up and his eyes were immediately drawn to her, refusing to tear themselves away from the sight of her.

She had Pegleg nestled on her belly and Darkclaw on top her bent knee and Flutter on the forearm of the arm that was tucked behind her head. Blackie meanwhile, was on the side table helping itself to more grapes.

“So, if I may ask, my lady- why does your family have such a strong affinity with the crows?” Guiscard asked, watching as the light from the fire flickered against her pale skin, casting a shadow across her sharp features.

Rosalia picked up a small piece of bread and offered it to Darkclaw.

“They are the symbol of our family,” she said simply.

“Yes but dragons are the symbol of the Vurya’s royal family but they spent their early years hunting them down to extinction,” Guiscard commented, finally managing to gather the self control to look away from her.

“How fascinating,” Rosalia said in that languid, quiet manner that Guiscard was beginning to understand was how she always behaved when he wasn’t irritating her.

He quite liked it.

He glanced up again and saw her accepting a grape from Blackie.

“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

“Why don’t you go search for the answer in the library as you always do?” she asked in return.

Guiscard groaned, “Do not tempt me, your ladyship. I could spend an eternity in that library.”

“You’re certainly close to spending an eternity in there,” Rosalia said as Flutter hopped over to the fruit bowl.

It was true.

Guiscard spent every single moment he could, hiding in the library and swallowing book after book like there was no tomorrow.

Rosalia shut her eyes as Pegleg hopped up to the top of the lounge to start preening her dark hair.

“My ancestor founded Crawford when a crow led him here to the river. It saved him when he was starving and weak from a lone wolf that tried attacking him. He took it as a sign that a powerful nation would come to be, led under the symbol of the crow,” she explained, opening her eyes again, “The crows have long been a part of our lives and with them, we came to worship the Goddess Noctis.”

Guiscard circled one of the errors she had made.

“Ah yes… I heard- the crows are the messenger of the Goddess Noctis,” Guiscard said, glancing up at her, “I’ve never been the religious sort. I have always thought crows hung about the dead in hopes for something to eat.”

Pegleg cawed loudly at Guiscard as though taking offence.

Guiscard looked up to make a mock apology to the crow but stopped when he saw Rosalia again.

She looked like a goddess herself, her black hair loose and spread around her like a smooth cascade of silk. Her pale, slender finger stroked Darkclaw’s chest. The light from the fire washed upon her causing her flesh to glow against the dark fabric of her robes that flowed down from the plush lounge cushions.

Guiscard swallowed, forcing himself to look away at once, “But still, the Goddess of Death seems like a strange patron goddess to worship,” he said, feeling his cheeks grow hot.

For goodness sake, he was not a child of sixteen dealing with his first infatuation.

“Death comes upon us all,” Rosalia murmured, letting Darkclaw hop onto her chest of all places, and put its head under its wing.

Guiscard threw a look of envy at the crow before turning back to his work.

“Whether we choose to give in or not, we all die. It seems best to worship the goddess who will take us to her realm,” she said, stroking Darkclaw’s glossy back and causing Pegleg to look up and caw loudly, jealous.

My sentiments exactly, Master Pegleg, Guiscard found himself thinking.

He wondered if he’d ever be able to perform the shape-shifting spells he read so much about in the past.

If he were a crow maybe he could get close without her or her guards drawing their swords on him.

How would it feel to have her touch him so gently?

Would her touch be as warm as he spent the past month imagining it would be?

He set down the papers and got to his feet, looking out the window at the depressingly grey skies outside, “Yes, mayhap that is the wiser decision, my lady,” he said.

He glanced back at Rosalia again.

The gods must be testing his will.

Usually by now he would have already tasted and savoured the fine wine. But with Rosalia Crawford- all of his flirting and charm seem to fall upon deaf ears and blind eyes.

He wasn’t sure if she was even noticing his flirting, because she seemed the type who would threaten him with death if she were adverse to his advances.

And it wasn’t that he had lost his touch either.

He knew that for a fact.

He was still perfectly capable of charming anyone he desired- that much was still obvious from the reactions of the women he had met in Crawburgh so far.

Guiscard looked round again.

Gods above, he had a great deal of respect for Alexis for never laying a finger on Lady Rosalia unless it was to protect her.

He wasn’t quite sure what to make of Raven at times.

The man seemed to be both Rosalia’s personal guard and attendant.

Surely a woman would be a better fit for the role.

He knew by now, from the family tree in the library, the Rosalia’s family had ties with old Yunang Empire.

There were stories of eunuchs serving the royal women of the Yunang. But he seriously doubted that would be the case there.

Quite suddenly, the crows took off, forcing Guiscard to jump away from the window as they flew out.

“That was very abrupt of them,” he observed, fixing his hair again.

Rosalia often commented that he spent so much time on his hair but it was always so tousled.

But Guiscard always insisted that it was ‘carefully’ tousled.

Then Rosalia would tell him to stop wasting precious time on his hair.

And Alexis told him that if he needed help to get his hair tousled, he’d help hang him upside down from the battlements so the wind could do the job.

Guiscard was beginning to believe that Guardsman Alexis was not fond of him in the slightest.

“The winds have died down, no doubt they’re returning to the Crow Keep,” Rosalia explained.

The crows in proximity to the capital had their own keep within the castle grounds where the Crow Keeper cared for them.

Rosalia sat up, picking up a black feather that one of the crows had dropped on the table.

“Shall we continue with our lesson then, my lady?” Guiscard asked.

“I suppose,” she said, dropping the feather on the table once more and getting to her feet.

*

Their class went on until Alexis and Raven came to collect them for supper.

“Fixing your hair again, Master Guiscard?” Alexis asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Be nice, Alex,” Raven said with a smile.

“Thank you, Guardsman Raven,” Guiscard said with a small bow, “It’s nice to see someone about cares for the important things in life.”

Raven shook his head but continued to smile as he helped Rosalia put on her wrap.

Alexis scowled at Guiscard.

“How did the class go, my lady?” he asked Rosalia.

“My head is numb,” she replied, “I can’t imagine people doing this every single day,” she said as they headed to the dining room.

Guiscard raised an eyebrow, “I cannot fathom hitting each other with swords every day,” he retorted.

“Would you like a round, Master Guiscard? You seem like a fairly fit man,” Raven said.

“Why, thank you for noticing, Sir Guardsman,” Guiscard said smoothly, “But I would rather decline.”

They arrived in the dining room and Raven sat Rosalia down on the seat closest to the fire.

Guiscard always wanted the seat by her side but both those seats were taken by her guards. So he had no choice but to sit across from her where he could watch her throughout the meal.

This was beginning to grow increasingly difficult.

It was just the other day, he missed his mouth when trying to eat porridge.

That was a less than attractive side to show to his lady love.

After the soup, Raven spoke, “My lady,” he said, looking at her, “We have managed to find several more suitors for you.”

Rosalia made an annoyed sound but Guiscard looked up in surprise.

“I thought you two have had enough of the subject,”

“If my lady would consent to it, we can invite them to the castle so that my lady can meet with them personally,” Alexis said, “That is, if only my lady is comfortable with the idea.”

Rosalia sighed as the servants brought the next course. She stabbed at the meat with particular ferocity, “Very well, if you have reports regarding their history and background, leave it on my desk for review tomorrow,” she told them.

“I… I did not realise you were looking for marriage candidates, my lady,” he couldn’t help but say.

Inside his mind he started wondering frantically if he could somehow be a possible candidate as well.

But considering how much both Alexis and her ladyship seem to dislike him, he probably shouldn’t even bring it up. But, he couldn’t help but feel sick at the thought of someone other man holding Rosalia the same way he yearned to hold her.

“I was not,” she replied, still sounding a little annoyed, “They are,” she said, pointing to her two guards.

Raven glanced at Guiscard and said in an almost pointing manner, “With her ladyship’s rather perilous lifestyle, we thought it wise for her to have a consort, and more importantly children. Enough to secure the Crawford bloodline,” he explained, looking at him.

Guiscard wasn’t sure what to make of that knowing look on Raven’s face.

From what he could make of Raven so far, he was a great deal more level headed and shrewd than Alexis and unlike Rosalia- less defensive and seemed much more aware of Guiscard’s advances.

Guiscard looked at Rosalia.

She did not seem at all pleased.

He wanted to talk to her about it.

It was better for him to be direct with Rosalia but the only time he could get her alone was during their lessons.

So he would have to wait for the following day.

After supper, Rosalia bade Guiscard goodnight and returned to her chambers while he went to the library to do a spot of late night reading.

Elias, the guard Rosalia had tasked to keep an eye on him, groaned inwardly.

He had been spending so much time at that poxy library, he wanted to throw himself off the tower.

Guiscard had attempted to teach the man to read so he could spend his time a bit more beneficially but Elias refused. “I have enough to see too without extra distractions,” he had told him.

There was a corner of the library, right by the window and near a fireplace that Guiscard had claimed for his own. He had moved a large, comfortable chair from the other side of the library into the corner along with a couple of nice rugs and a warm woollen blanket as it was far too cold in Galadier.

There was a stack of books that he had picked out for his perusal as well so he could go through them in his own leisure.

Since he was using the library on a daily basis, Rosalia had arranged for a few servants to care for the place and order new books.

That evening, Guiscard poked the fire, making sure to keep any valuable books away from it and settled down on the plush chair with a sigh of relief.

He picked out a book and smiled to himself, “Now… where was I?”

*

Rosalia’s bathroom was well heated allowing her to take her beloved baths without catching a chill.

It had been the utmost relief to sink into the hot, soapy bath that cold evening. She wanted to remain in the water forever.

Raven meanwhile, stood aside as usual, waiting to assist should her ladyship need anything. The door next to him was open slightly so Alexis could hear what was happening inside.

“Did you enjoy your supper, my lady?” Raven asked.

“Of course I did,” Rosalia replied, soaping herself.

The soap was made from goat’s milk. One of Mother Adeline’s own inventions.

“Why do you ask?” she asked him.

“Cook is trying to decide on the menu for the Midwinter Celebration,” Raven explained.

“Ah yes, I see.”

Once a year, the castle grounds were opened to the people to celebrate the Midwinter Festival.

The weather was bleak and food was scarce so Rosalia’s grandfather had started the tradition of opening their doors and allowing the masses in for a day and night for celebrations.

The city itself hosted a weeklong celebration leading up to the Midwinter in the castle.

This meant a lot of fun for her people and some time to forget about their difficulties and woes.

But it meant that her spymaster’s people and guards were on full alert as well.

Every year there would be multiple attempts on Lady Crawford’s life throughout the week.

Every year so far, her people have managed to foil each attempt.

Rosalia shut her eyes for a moment, trying to relax in the hot water.

It hurts.

She opened her eyes again, unable to breathe.

She started coughing.

“My lady!” Raven said, going to her at once.

“Is she alright?” Alexis asked from outside the door, “What’s happening?”

“I’m fine,” Rosalia wheezed, trying to stop her coughing, “I may have caught a chill today- that’s all.”

“Alexis, get Healer Emwik!”

“I said, I’m fine!” Rosalia snapped, getting out of the bath as she coughed and hacked, the burning sensation in her chest spreading.

Her towel had been heating by the fire and Raven fetched it at once.

Rosalia tried to stop her coughing as Raven helped dry her off, “I just need some tea,” she told them, taking the towel from Raven to wrap her wet hair and striding out of the bathroom.

Alexis looked away at once.

“My lady, please get dressed,” Raven said, going after her, “Alexis, please go have the maids bring her ladyship a pot of tea,” he said, “My lady, please dry yourself off, you’re leaving puddles on the floor.”

“Of course,” Alexis said, edging out of the room with his back to Rosalia. This wasn’t the first time such a situation arose but his ears still turned red from the tiniest glimpse of her ladyship.

With Alexis gone, Raven knelt down next to Rosalia as she dried out her hair. He looked worried as he asked, “My lady, are you sure you’re alright? I can get Healer Emwik here if need be-“

“I’m fine,” Rosalia said at once, “The fact all of you are chasing after me all the time, worrying needlessly, is causing more distress than a little cough,” she said, sounding annoyed.

She changed into her nightshirt at last as Raven went to stoke the fire in the sitting room, waiting for Alexis to return so he could leave Rosalia and run the usual inspections on the bedchamber.

Alexis soon returned with a maid who bore a pot of tea.

“My lady,” the woman greeted with a curtsy, placing the tray down on the side table.

Alexis poured it out and tasted it first before adding the milk and honey and handing it to Rosalia.

“Have a servant make sure that the fire does not die out tonight,” Raven told the maid.

“Yes sir.”

Rosalia finished drying her hair and her cup of tea before going into bed. Alexis meanwhile fussed over the state of her room, pulling more blankets over her than really necessary.

“Are you feeling better, my lady?” he asked, looking worried.

She nodded, her eyes already closing.

Raven meanwhile handed the pot of tea back to the maid while Alexis set his and Raven’s bed pallets on the ground again.

Glass was expensive, but they had been slowly installing it around the castle, beginning in Rosalia’s bedchambers and study for security reasons.

Rosalia’s eyes were closed but she was still having difficulty.

She felt stifled but the air outside was far too cold to ask for the windows to be fully opened.

She tried not to cough again, waiting.

Alexis and Raven continued to finish their work for the day and she heard them speaking softly to one another.

But after what felt like an eternity, the last lamp was blown out as she heard them both settle down in the pallets to sleep.

When Rosalia knew they were properly asleep, she sat up.

She couldn’t breathe.

Alexis snorted in his sleep and turned over in his pallet.

She didn’t want to worry them again.

She curled up on her side, squeezing her eyes shut tightly.

Some of the healers spoke of different medicines that would stop the pain but the side effects were not worth it.

After a bit, Rosalia sat up again and looked round.

There was no movement in the room.

She got out of bed and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders before slipping out of the room, taking her sword with her out of pure habit.

Raven stirred for a moment. They were both light sleepers but Raven was the one nearer to the door.

She saw him grimace for a moment but then simply rolled over again and continued sleeping.

Rosalia heaved a sigh of relief before slipping out of the door and shutting it quietly.

The guards who were on duty in the corridor just outside her chambers were immensely surprised to see her out in her sleeping clothes on her own.

“My lady-“

“Hush,” she told them at once before walking off.

Four of the guards went with after her in perfect silent, leaving another two behind in case Alexis and Raven awoke and couldn’t find her.

“My lady,” one of the guards said, offering his mantle.

“Thank you,” she told him, accepting the warm cloak and wrapping the extra layer around her shoulders.

Rosalia wasn’t quite sure where she was going.

She just needed to breathe.

But she found herself walking in direction of the library.

She looked at the building.

Growing up she hadn’t spent much time in the library. She had grown up being trained to take on her father’s place. And when she was older, she was too busy either not getting killed, or killing her rivals.

But her grandfather and those before him had been avid readers and collectors of rare books from across the lands, storing them away in the library for the benefit of their descendants.

Her father tried to keep the tradition during his rule, but during his time, the great famine took his attention to more important matters.

Like trying to keep his people from starving to death in droves and keeping the economy going.

Mayhap she should start looking to collect books for the library again.

Seeing how things are going and how her populace are going to be educated, she may open the library to the public one day.

Rosaia frowned suddenly.

There was a light in one of the windows.

Raven said to be careful with the lamps and such in the library as it was too easy for all of it to go up in flames.

Had a servant left a fire or was Guiscard still reading?

The night guard had already called the midnight hour.

She went over to the library and greeted the guards on the night patrol as she did so.

Going in, she found Guiscard still in his chair and quite lost in some heavy, musty tome.

For once, he barely noticed her presence and probably wouldn’t have had Elias not jump to his feet in attention. “My lady,” he greeted with a bow, hoping that she would send Guiscard to bed so he could go home as well.

“At ease, Elias,” she said softly.

Guiscard looked up at once and immediately started praying to the gods to grant him self control.

Rosalia stood there, only dressed in her nightshirt, handing her wraps over to her guards.

He shifted in his seat- gods above, did this woman have no sense of self-awareness?

“Good evening, your ladyship,” he greeted at last, “May I be of help?” he asked.

“I couldn’t sleep and I thought someone had left a lamp alight in the library,” she told him, looking round.

“Is it that late already?” Guiscard asked with a frown.

“Yes, sir,” Elias told him, sounding incredibly strained.

Guiscard got to his feet and stretched, hearing his back pop, “Oh dear- I barely noticed,” he said, almost glad for an excuse to remove himself from Rosalia’s presence before he made a complete fool of himself, “I should go to bed then,” he told her.

He tried to talk past her but the moment he did, he caught the sight of the expression on her face.

She didn’t seem sleepy.

But she was pale and her face looked strained.

Was she ill?

“Are you alright, my lady?” he asked.

“It’s suffocating,” she said so quietly, he almost missed it.

“What do you mean?” he asked with a frown.

Rosalia didn’t reply.

“My lady,” one of the guards said, “It’s starting to snow again. Mayhap your ladyship should return to your bed chambers.”

“Of course,” she said.

The man offered her wraps with a bow.

She took it and turned round to leave.

Guiscard walked with her part of the way. He glanced at her before looking round again

“It’s a beautiful night,” he commented, “Perhaps I could invite your ladyship for a late night stroll sometime, my lady?”

Rosalia didn’t even spare him a glance. “It’s far too much of a security issue,” she said.

“So if it weren’t for the danger of an assassination, you would come for a walk with me,” he asked, in a brighter manner.

“If you can spend the entire time not talking about yourself, then yes.”

Guiscard looked offended, “I am a riveting topic to discuss, my lady,” he said.

Rosalia raised an eyebrow at him.

He smiled at her. “I’ll see you in the morning, your ladyship. Sleep well,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it.

Rosalia drew her sword at once.

“I meant nothing by it, my lady! I was just being polite!” he said at once.

“Touch me without permission again, and I will run you through.”

“Duly noted, your ladyship.”

Rosalia scowled at him but he smiled at her and left for his chambers with Guardsman Elias.

She headed back to her own chambers but suddenly noticed her breathing was coming easier.

Strange.

“Are you done, my lady?” Guiscard asked.

Rosalia frowned at the mathematic question Guiscard had set for her. It wasn’t at all straight forward but was disguised as a question on economics so she was having a hard time trying to get it together.

“Not… quite,” she said, scratching her chin with the end of the quill.

He watched the expression on her face, “Do you need help, your ladyship? Or do you need more time?”

“More time,” she replied, still frowning at the question.

“Very well,” he said, turning over the hourglass, “You have until the first mark,” he told her before sitting down again by the fire to warm himself.

He had a book with him to read but he much preferred watching Rosalia.

She looked a little irritated by the fact she was having trouble with the question.

She fascinated him.

The more he knew of her, the more intrigued he became.

She was often stern and fierce but he sensed that there was more to her than that.

From what he learnt of her so far, Lady Rosalia Crawford had no choice but to grow up as the Iron Lady.

But what he didn’t quite understand was just why she was chosen to be heir of the household, out of all her siblings.

Not only was she the youngest in her family, but she was also the only daughter.

In Vurya women rarely rose to power in such a way.

They were useful for political marriages. And there were tales of women in high-ranking marriages pulling the strings from the shadows.

But for her to be an outright leader…

That was something he had read about in history books of times that were long passed.

“Why you, my lady?”

Rosalia looked up with a frown, “What do you mean?” she asked.

“No forgive, I was simply wondering out loud, my lady,” he said.

“What were you wondering about?” she asked curiously.

“Well… meaning no disrespect your ladyship, I was simply wondering why you were chosen to lead Crawford,” he said, “You are incredibly capable of the position, without a doubt, Iron Lady- but I was simply unsure why your late father chose you as his successor.”

Rosalia set down her quill, looking at Pegleg who was perched on the desk next to her inkpot.

“The crows decided it,” she said, tickling its beak.

Pegleg cawed and started mouthing her finger instead, making her smile.

Guiscard frowned.

“The… crows,” he repeated, “I- well, seeing how they are the only reason I am still alive today- mayhap I should not speak ill of them. But, at the end of the day, they are just… well- birds.”

Rosalia looked at him.

“Would you like to go back over your pot of pitch, Scholar Guiscard?”

“I apologise.”

“Apologise to them,” she said, pointing to the three crows sharing the perch in the corner of the room.

Guiscard sighed and got up, straightening his clothes and looking polite as he bowed, “I apologise, Master Crows,” he said, before sitting down again, “But again, just how did they signal that you were to lead the family? Did they tap a code on the stonewalls with their beaks?”

Rosalia’s eyes narrowed.

“I should just hang your back over the pot of pitch.”

He tried not to grin.

“Ah yes, but if I were gone, my lady would miss my enthralling presence,” he said.

She picked up her sword.

“I’ll stop now,” he said quickly, “But all jesting aside, my lady, how did they manage to communicate such an intricate message.”

Rosalia sighed and decided to pour herself a cup of hot tea first.

“During my father’s reign, there was a great famine. The crows at the time disappeared suddenly. Some say they disappeared because of the famine but the priests and priestesses of the Goddess Noctis said the famine came because they left. Somehow they had taken offence to something we had done,” she said, sipping her tea.

“I shall assume it’s the former.”

Pegleg cawed and looked at Rosalia.

She nodded at it and the bird took off to attack Guiscard.

Rosalia leaned back in her seat and sipped her tea again, watching Guiscard attempt to escape Pegleg.

The guard outside opened the door to look in and check on Rosalia, confused by all the yelling. But seeing that her ladyship was safe and comfortable, he simply left it be.

Pegleg soon stopped its assault and returned to Rosalia’s desk.

Guiscard scowled at it for ruining his appearance. “May I borrow your looking glass again, my lady?” he asked, trying to both neaten his clothes and hair at the same time.

“Feel free,” she said.

“So what happened after, my lady?” he asked, going to check his reflection in the glass in the corner of the room.

He pulled out a small comb that he seemed to carry about with him at all times. He untied his silvery hair and started brushing it out again.

He had explained his hair was an accident when a spell he was experimenting with backfired on him. And now it was permanently a silver blonde and he decided he quite liked it.

Rosalia looked over the answer she had written out for the question, “My mother had a dream one night. She dreamt she was seated in a dead tree, surrounded by a flock of crows. In her dream, they were speaking to her. They said they will return to Crawford at the birth of the baby girl she was bearing. They said I was important and that I would unite the lands of Galadier.

“The next morn, she went to Healer Ewik and discovered she was pregnant. And what the crows promised came true. When I was born, it was sunset and the crows came flocking back to Crawburgh,” she said, watching him fix his cravat, “They stayed with me through my childhood. My nursemaid said I was happiest when I was with them as well. They’re the reason I am alive today,” she added, breaking off a bit of bread and holding it up.

One of the crows fluttered over to her arm and started pecking at it, stuffing it into its beak.

“What do you mean?” Guiscard asked.

“When my family was killed, the assassin failed to kill me because Pegleg stalled him. It attacked him, losing its leg in the process and letting me have enough time to stab the blight eating filth in the throat,” she said for a moment.

Her expression had darkened and she looked downright sinister.

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