A Murder of Crows

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Loss

Gods above- she is beautiful.

Guiscard found himself staring at her again.

He couldn’t help it, reaching out to touch her face.

He just wanted to hold her.

But then he felt the tip of her sword against his chest.

“Please keep your distance,” she reminded.

Guiscard backed away, but his eyes were still on her face, “Yes- forgive me,” he said.

“If you’re done preening, I’ve finished answering your questions,” she said holding up the parchment.

He took it from her and turned round in the guise of getting more light from the fire place to read the answer.

In reality, he was quite breathless.

That woman was going to be the absolute death of him.

As he tried to calm himself down, he realised that she had been speaking to him.

“Hm? Forgive me my lady- what was that?” he asked.

“I asked if my answer was correct,” Rosalia said.

“Oh yes, just give me a moment.”

“As you like.”

Guiscard shook his head to clear it and looked at Rosalia’s work.

Her writing was incredibly neat for someone who did as much writing as she.

The ink was still drying and smudged against his fingers.

“Everything looks like they’re in order, my lady- well done,” he said, “Are you alright? You look a little ill.”

“I’m fine,” she said, “I’m just a little hungry.”

Guiscard nodded though he continued to watch her worriedly.

“Why don’t we end today’s lesson and arrange for someone to bring you something to eat?”

Rosalia hesitated.

She had work to see to but before she could decide, Guiscard had rung the servant’s bell.

“You may have work,” Guiscard told her, “But that’s not a good enough excuse to neglect your health.”

She looked fairly surprised.

Guiscard smiled, “What- surely you know I’m a perceptive man, my lady,” he told her.

Rosalia raised an eyebrow, “What has Raven been telling you?”

“What? Do you think I would honestly need insider information to understand your ladys- he said not to let you overwork.”

She scowled, “I don’t need to be coddled all the time,” she said, more to herself than to Guiscard as she handed him a handkerchief.

“What’s this for, my lady?” Guiscard asked, his heart skipping a beat.

“Your hand.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s ink on your hand. I don’t want to hear you go on and on for hours if you accidentally smeared it on your clothes.”

“Ah- of course, thank you, my lady.”

Guiscard smiled but inwardly, he scolded himself for being foolish.

Things were different in Galadier.

Rosalia wouldn’t understand that giving him her handkerchief like that was a token of affection.

To her, she was just being her usual straightforward self.

There was a knock on the door and Alice appeared, curtsying a little, “May I help you, my lady?”

“Could you bring us something to eat please,” Rosalia said, already looking at one of the reports on her desk.

“Of course my lady.”

She left and Rosalia glanced up at the movement of one of the crows.

It was little Inky again.

The young crow seemed to have taken a liking to Guiscard since his arrival and at that moment she was perched on his shoulder as he tried to read.

He still wasn’t quite used to having the crows going and doing whatever they pleased. His shoulders were stiff as Inky perched on his shoulder, unused to its little talons.

She looked at the book he was trying to read, cocking her head to one side as she considered it.

“Is it interesting?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon, my lady?” he asked, trying to pry Inky off his shoulder without upsetting the crow.

“Reading for leisure,” she said, “Is it interesting?”

Guiscard smiled, “That’s a rather foolish question to ask, my lady,” he said, “Of course it is. These books allow you to glimpse into the lives and thoughts of others. They have the ability to teach and inspire minds!”

Rosalia looked at him for a moment before asking, “Then have you ever written any books? You always seem to have a lot to say about yourself after all,” she pointed out.

Guiscard grinned, “Ah yes,” he said with a dramatic sigh, “It is a great shame but no, I have yet to write one myself. Perhaps one day, I shall. After all, who would not love to read through the spectacular memoirs dedicated to my life? I must of course engage the assistance of an artist to ensure that this marvellous work of art is preserved through the ages,” he said gesturing to his own face.

“Why is it every time I have a conversation with you, I feel like stabbing someone?” Rosalia asked with a scowl.

He chuckled.

The maid soon returned with some freshly steamed buns and Guiscard noticed Rosalia perk up suddenly.

They all looked alike, little round white buns but there were different patterned dots on the top of them to mark what they were.

“Cook just received some fresh red beans, my lady so he insisted on making my lady’s favourite,” Alice said with a knowing smile.

“Please give him my thanks,” Rosalia said.

Guiscard watched her.

She looked calm but he could tell by her straight back and starry eyes, that she was far too excited about this.

He tried not to laugh.

Perhaps there was a childish side to his Iron Lady after all.

Alice curtsied again and left, allowing Rosalia to help herself to a bun decorated with three little red dots on the top of them.

“Your favourite treat, my lady?” he asked.

Rosalia reddened as she bit into the bun.

“My nursemaid used to make them for me,” she said, sounding defensive.

“I mean no offense, my lady. I myself am greatly partial to crystallised pineapple.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Rosalia replied, “Would you care for some? There’s caramelised pork buns here as well.”

“Well, don’t mind if I do, my lady.”

He took one of the red bean buns, wanting to see just what his lady love was so keen about.

The bun was soft and still warm.

He tore it open and saw the steam rise of the red bean paste inside.

Carefully, he took a bite.

“It’s very sweet,” he commented.

Rosalia was already on her second.

Pegleg and Inky hopped over but she wouldn’t let them have any.

“It’s not good for your feathers,” she told them sternly when Inky tried to steal a bun.

Guiscard frowned, watching, “I have another question regarding the crows,” he said, tearing up the bun to let it cool down faster so he wouldn’t burn his tongue. The red bean paste was surprisingly good.

“Oh?”

“Aren’t they pests for farms?” he asked, “Don’t get upset with me, Master Crows,” he added when the crows started puffing up and cawing at him, “I am simply stating that in other kingdoms, they are known to steal food and raid crops.”

Rosalia frowned, tickling Pegleg’s puffed out breast to quieten him down again, “I have heard of such things happening in the lands of the other Warlords,” she said, “But there has never been cases of it happening in Crawford. We usually feed the crows here. They eat just about anything so sometimes people give them carrion or waste food if they have no food to offer. The Crow Keeper takes care of the crows in the city.”

Pegleg cawed loudly at Guiscard again before hopping to Rosalia to be fed.

Guiscard grinned.

He never realised how intelligent the curst birds were until coming to Galadier.

Pegleg was perfectly capable of looking after itself and seemed able to bully other crows on his own and everything.

But the bird also knew perfectly well that with its missing leg, it had an easier time looking sad and pathetic which caused Rosalia to be extra careful with it, spoiling it terribly.

They were about to return to their lesson when a messenger came running in, looking breathless.

“My lady, I beg your pardon,” he said.

“What is it?” Rosalia asked sharply.

“It’s the wolves again, my lady.”

She got to her feet at once, “What do you mean? Who did they kill this time?” she demanded.

“This time?” Guiscard repeated.

Rosalia paid him no attention.

“They took Mistress Harriet’s daughter, my lady. She was out with Master Jeptha, collecting more firewood when the wolves attacked. They managed to drive the wolves off for now but-…” the messenger trailed off as Rosalia’s face turned stark white.

*

Guiscard wasn’t sure just why he had tagged along with Rosalia.

But seeing that look on her face.

Seeing her actually shaken.

He wanted to help.

Somehow.

There was wailing coming from within the house just a little off the high street.

A crowd had already formed outside. A few hunters were present with blood on their clothes.

No doubt they had helped retrieve the victim.

The crowd parted like water as Rosalia strode towards the entrance of the house, flanked by Alexis and Raven as always.

Guiscard’s heart sank as he stepped into the house.

The victim- a woman Rosalia’s age, laid on the ground on a rug.

He almost threw up from the sight of her throat, torn open and what was left of her blood still staining the fabric beneath her.

Her eyes were wide and her mouth open in a silent, everlasting scream, speaking of the terror she lived through in her final moments.

The healer who was knelt next to her, closed her eye and covered her face with a white cloth.

Rosalia spotted the woman’s uncle- Jeptha and nearly snarled at the man, “What happened!?” she demanded, “I gave the order not to stray into the forest!” she said.

“We wanted to forage and collect more wood, my lady- we thought- as it was day-” he said, tears leaking down his rough cheeks.

There were wounds on his arms and chest from his own battle with the wolves.

Raven gently pulled Rosalia back, “My lady,” he said, reminding her to keep her head.

Guiscard never did well in such situations.

He didn’t know what to do with himself.

The mother was sobbing and crying out for her daughter, her sons holding her back so she wouldn’t throw herself on the body. The lads themselves were shaking.

The father remained stony faced, averting his gaze from the scene as though he would break at any moment.

Rosalia shut her eyes for a moment, remembering her task.

She pulled out a feather from the pouch she wore at her waist and laid it carefully on the deceased’s chest before kneeling down by her head. She crossed both hands over her chest and shut her eyes again.

“What is she doing?” Guiscard asked quietly.

“Lady Rosalia is the head of the Crawford family and therefore can represent the Goddess Noctis when a priest or priestess is unavailable,” Elias explained.

Guiscard noticed that everyone else was kneeling now and quickly followed suit.

The only time he had attended such a thing was when he was a child.

The mother was still sobbing as Rosalia started the Prayer of the Dead.

The sound of the crying woman and the soft weeping of others present in the otherwise complete silence of the room came together to form the saddest sound Guiscard had ever heard.

Rosalia’s soft voice continued to chant in Ancient.

Guiscard looked up at the sound of wings.

A small flock of crows had entered through the window, watching. Pegleg was amongst them and fluttered down to Roalia’s shoulder.

The other crows hopped round the room, cocking their head this way and that.

They seemed to understand what was happening and were perfectly quiet.

The moment the prayer ended, the crows took off suddenly, flying out through the open window- no doubt taking the soul to the Goddess Noctis’ realm.

The healer came to bring the body to the next room, allowing him and his assistants to clean and prepare the body for burial.

“My lady, we must return,” Raven said, helping her up.

Rosalia nodded, taking Pegleg in her arms.

“My lady, please,” one of the brothers said, sounding angry, “Let us kill the wolves.”

Rosalia looked at him, “I will personally see to this matter, Roland. For now, please stay with your family,” she told him quietly.

The man bowed, “Yes, my lady.”

They returned to the castle, Rosalia sinking deep into thought.

“Why not just set traps for the wolves?” Guiscard asked aloud.

“We’ve tried that,” Elias said, “We try that every year but the beasts are too clever.”

“The God Lun continues to torment us,” Alexis said through clenched teeth.

“The God Lun?” Guiscard repeated, “Ah… yes- the wolves do belong to him. But it’s just the wolves. The gods may not be involved in this at all. I doubt they are. They would have better things to do with their time.”

Lun was a lesser God. He guessed the god must be in power in this particular region for them to bring him up at all.

He represented battles and war and honestly, worshiping a war god seemed like a better choice than the Goddess of Death.

“I know a few noble families that claim the Wolf as their emblem,” he commented conversationally.

“I despise wolves,” Rosalia said softly.

“Well- I-…” he said, unsure what to say.

“We can’t risk killing the wolves without offending the God Lun,” Raven said, “My lady- are you feeling alright?”

Rosalia was looking down, something Guiscard found unusual.

She usually strode along, her gaze set straight before her like a queen.

“Last year it was Madeline and Henry,” she said softly, “And now it’s Andrea.”

“Andrea? Was that her name?” Guiscard asked, “It’s beautiful.”

“She and Lady Rosalia were friends as children,” Elias told him quietly.

Guiscard’s eyes widened as he turned to look at Rosalia’s back, “I… I see,” he said at last, “I’m sorry, my lady.”

She shook her head.

When they got back to the castle, Rosalia told her guards to leave her and she headed straight back to her study.

She wanted to be alone, so it was to her surprise and irritation that Guiscard followed right after her.

“May I help you?” she asked, “I would rather be alone for a moment.”

“Listen, my lady, I can help you with this wolf problem if you return me my staff-“

“No,” she said flatly, “I’m not giving you your staff back. I know what mages are capable of with it.”

“I thought the crows vouched for me. It means you can trust me, can’t you?”

“I trust the crows, I don’t trust you,” she snapped.

“Fine- but I am an outsider, if I have the wolves leave your territory, your people don’t have to worry about offending the god. If he smites anyone, he smites me, and as the saying goes, mages are loved by the God Aberu,” he said, naming one of the Great Gods, the God of Knowledge.

Even in the hierarchy of the gods, the lesser gods dared not offend the Great Gods.

“We’ll find a way to get rid of them,” she said, turning away “You can return to the library.”

Guiscard scowled and grabbed her arm.

“Release me,” she hissed, her sword now at his throat.

He didn’t flinch.

He was fully capable of deflecting any attack she could use with her sword.

“My lady- I am more than a pretty face. If the crows want me here, then they clearly understand that there is a need for me. You may as well make use of it. Or do you want more of your people to be hunted down like prey? Do you want to say another prayer over the bodies of the people you love?”

“Let go of me this instant,” she ordered.

Guiscard obeyed this time and stepped back, “My offer stand, my lady,” he told her before he taking his book and leaving.

When the door shut, Rosalia dropped her sword and sat down on a seat, clutching Pegleg in her arms.

The crow let her, letting out a surprised croak when a tear fell onto its glossy back.

*

“What did you do to her ladyship?” Elias asked with an accusing note in his voice.

Guiscard didn’t reply straight away.

But when they arrived in the library, he let out a frustrated sigh.

“Gods above,” he said, “She truly is an Iron Lady… my lady love, how you torture me so- what is it?” he asked, seeing the look on Elias face.

“I… are you speaking about her ladyship?” he asked, “In that… lustful tone?” He sounded both disbelieving and disapproving.

“Well, Guardsman Elias- can you truly blame me? She is a gorgeous creature. She’s like a dragoness. So dangerous and powerful, she could end my life at any moment but you cannot tear your eyes away from her the moment she spreads her wings and breathes a fire that can destroy lands. You cannot deny, her ladyship is truly a wonder to behold,” he said.

Elias blinked, looking confused, “Well… her ladyship is beautiful I suppose… but- well, she is the Lady Crawford.”

“Ahh, I see,” Guiscard said, “So that is why no one ever attempted to court her,” he said, looking at Elias in a thoughtful manner, like he was an interesting riddle that he just managed to solve.

“What do you mean?”

“Hm? Oh, it just seems to me that the subjects of Crawford see their lady as a being too far high above them to be an actual woman to be courted. Like a deity, if you will,” he said, “How very fitting.”

Elias blinked, confused, “I… don’t follow.”

“Ah well,” he said, “Let’s keep this between us, Guardsman Elias. No need to report this to your Spymaster as well,” he said, petting the younger man on the shoulder.

“You have a strange fetish, Scholar Guiscard,” Elias observed as Guiscard went to his usual seat by the window.

“Perish the thought, Elias! It is not a fetish,” the man said, sounding offended, “It’s nothing as unsavoury as a fetish. It’s ardour. Adoration. Love.”

“Then are you going to try for Lady Rosalia’s hand in marriage then?” Elias asked with a frown.

Guiscard chuckled, “There are several problems regarding that thought, Elias,” he said, “For one, she has of yet shown any romantic interest in myself- but happily, neither has she shown it for anyone else and thus, the problem may be easily rectified. The second issue, I have no place here,” he pointed out, “Least of all in such a prominent position as consort.”

“I thought one as arrogant as yourself would enjoy being in a place of power,” Elias said.

“Is that what the spies have been saying of me? That I am arrogant?” he demanded, looking affronted, “Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. Someone as fascinating as myself can’t help but spawn envy from those less blessed and gifted,” he said.

Elias wore a very tortured expression.

“Did I offend my lady in some way?” he asked himself, “Is this why she would assign me to this task?

*

Rosalia sat quietly in her study, watching the lamp on her desk flicker and burn.

In her mind, she was going over what Guiscard had said.

He could help.

But she didn’t like the idea of having an outsider help.

She coughed as she petted Pegleg.

Getting to her feet, she scowled. The worst part of it was that her spies had confirmed Guiscard was not from any of her rivals’ lands. But they still haven’t found out just where she was from.

His accent placed him somewhere from the south of Vurya.

But her spymaster pointed out that any competent spy could easily fake such an accent.

“My lady?” Alice said, taking the pot of tea and cups.

“Please summon Scholar Guiscard,” Rosalia said, coughing still.

“Yes, my lady. Where would you like this bouquet, my lady?” she asked.

“Hm? Just put it here. I’ll deal with it,” she said.

Alice curtsied, “Yes, my lady.”

Alice left the room with the tea set while Rosalia surveyed the bouquet carefully.

Apparently her mother used to like having fresh flowers around the castle. But during winter, she would make bouquets out of dried leaves and sticks and even crow feathers.

They were pretty in a strange way.

But the maids had continued to keep up the practice.

Rosalia never really understood it but she let them do as they wish.

She picked up the bouquet and plucked several stray bits of it to throw into the fire before putting it into a vase.

With that done, she reclined on the lounge trying to think.

Pegleg jumped onto her belly again and nestled down again comfortably.

“You summoned me, my lady?”

Rosalia opened her eyes and saw Guiscard there, holding Inky quite stiffly.

Pegleg gave a rattling caw, which Inky replied. The two fluttered over to one another and started fussing over one another.

“Yes,” she said, sitting up again, “Shut the door behind you, please.”

“Of course, my lady,” he said, shutting the door quietly and carefully, “How may I be of service?”

Rosalia sat behind her desk, looking hesitant.

“My lady?”

“You said earlier you could get rid of the wolves?” she asked.

Guiscard nodded, “There are spells that will allow me to speak to animals,” he explained, “But that is only if they are willing to speak to me in return.”

Rosalia frowned, “Speaking to animals? Like the Crow Keeper can speak to the crows and they to him?” she asked.

“Well, I have yet to meet the Crow Keeper, my lady, so it would be difficult to say. There is a chance of him having Beast Craft, a brand of magic which allows for it to naturally happen,” he said, “I certainly do not and therefore I require certain spells and items that will act as aids for my magic. It would be much easier if I had my staff-“ he added.

“I’m not giving you your staff back.”

Guiscard looked as though he was about to argue but then caught the stubborn, fiery look on Rosalia’s face again and was forced to suppress a groan of longing.

“I’ll do what I can then, but you must let me go alone,” he said, “The wolves may not take kindly to the presence of others. Animals can be difficult to work with at times.”

“You’re not going to get yourself killed or try and escape, will you?” Rosalia asked, looking suspicious.

“Of course not, your ladyship. Leaving now would mean I would never be able to gaze upon my lady’s fair countenance ever again,” he said.

Rosalia made a disgusted noise, “I knew asking you would mean I have to put up with more of this,” she said, placing her face in her hand.

Guiscard chuckled.

“I will try and stop, at least for now that is, my fair Iron Lady.”

“Good, now- what is it you require?” she asked.

“Chalk or charcoal. Pebbles. Sixteen of them to be exact, of the same shape and size. And, oh yes- I would appreciate it if no one else realises I am the one who dealt with the wolves,” he said.

“Very well, I would rather people not realise we are housing a mage either,” Rosalia said, writing down the items needed.

Guiscard smiled, “This is one of the rituals that do not require an actual mage, though it does help since I do not need a secondary source of magic.”

Rosalia nodded, “I will have Alexis and Raven arrange the items,” she said, ringing the servant’s bell.

“It will require the full moon as well, my lady,” Guiscard said, “That will be in two nights time.”

“Very well.”

He watched her, “I would much rather spend the full moon night taking a romantic stroll in the snow with a beautiful woman,” he said, “But I suppose I can do so in the near future instead.”

“I would rather you not waste your time, but it is none of my business to tell you how you spend your spare time,” she said.

Guiscard sighed.

He was going to have a bit more direct.

*

“Why are we here?” Alexis asked.

He was not fond of the Crow Keep.

The Crow Keeper and his assistants kept the place clean, Alexis wasn’t fond of how the crows insisted on perching on him.

“You don’t have to enter the keep if you do not want to,” Rosalia said.

“I… well- if my lady is going in, then surely so must I,” Alexis said.

Rosalia smiled, “It’s fine, you and Raven can wait outside for me. I just need to speak to the Crow Keeper,” she said.

“Yes, my lady,” Alexis said, looking relieved.

Raven shrugged.

He didn’t really mind the crows at all.

Still, they stood on either side of the entrance, to wait.

The crows started cawing to greet Rosalia. The first to flutter down to greet her was Pegleg.

She caught it and cradled the crow in her arms.

“Keeper Bertram?” she called.

The crows were all nestled in their nests along the walls of the tower or perched on the branches that were hung wherever possible.

They had just done a proper clean of the place. The old dirty hay had been removed and the floors were scrubbed clean. But there were already droppings on the ground already.

Another crow landed on Rosalia’s shoulder.

“Keeper?”

“R-Rosa!” A man emerged from the shadows, dressed in a strange black ensemble with feather in his messy hair and crows perched on either shoulders as well as on his head.

He shambled over, looking delighted.

Rosalia actually relaxed and greeted him, smiling.

“Rosa visit me?” he asked excitedly, hugging her.

She returned his hug, upsetting the crows that were perched on them.

“Yes, I have. How have you been?” she asked, brushing his hair behind his ear.

“Good. Good,” he said.

“Here, I got something from the kitchens for you. We used to love this when we were little, remember?” Rosalia asked, holding up the cloth bundle.

Crow Keeper took the bundle and opened it.

“Red bean buns!” he said excitedly.

Rosalia smiled at his excitement as he shooed off the crows from his treat and sat on the floor to eat.

She knelt down next to him, watching as he tore the bun apart to eat.

“Rosa, eat,” he told her, holding up a piece.

Rosalia opened her mouth and ate it.

“Good?”

“Always,” Rosalia told him.

She waited until he was done eating before saying, “Keeper Bertram, can you help me ask the crows something?”

“Ask?”

“Yes, can you help me?”

“Always help Rosa!”

Pegleg landed on Rosalia’s lap and cawed, ready to listen.

“You’ve heard of the newcomer, haven’t you? Scholar Guiscard?” she asked as he watched her with his wide dark eyes.

“Scholar? New to flock? Pale hair. Brown skin. Deep voice. Many shiny things on plumage. Does not like when we peck on shiny thing,”

“Yes, that’s him. His name is Guiscard,” Rosalia told him.

“Guiscard. New flockmate is Guiscard,” Keeper Bertram told the crows.

The crows present started cawing to one another, sharing this new piece of information.

Rosalia waited for them to finish.

Once they did, she said, “Two nights from now, when the full moon rises, Guiscard will be going out into the forest to speak to the wolves. I want some crows to keep an eye on him to make sure he isn’t reporting to anyone.”

The Crow Keeper shook his head, “Night. Sleep. Roosting. New crow not spy. Here to help. Protect Lady,” he said, laying a hand on her cheek, “Lady please. Allow trust.”

Rosalia held his hand.

It was callused and warm.

“That’s easier said than done, Bertram,” she said, “But please- even if not to make sure he doesn’t betray us, then to make sure… to make sure he stays safe,” she told him, her tone softening.

The man thought about it for a moment before nodding, “Who will go? Who will stay awake and follow new flockmate when he goes speak to wolves?” he asked the flock that was listening.

The crows spent a little bit arguing amongst themselves.

“Pegleg likes new flockmate. He will go,” Keeper Bertram told Rosalia, “Inky no. You too young.”

Inky cawed loudly and flew up to a perch, its back to them to show them that it was sulking.

Three more crows volunteered as well and Rosalia smiled.

“Thank you,” she said, kissing Keeper Bertram’s cheek.

Keeper Bertram beamed and hugged her again.

They got up and Rosalia had to help brush the bits of hay and dirt that was stuck to his clothes since he didn’t really care that they were there.

“I’ll come visit again when I have the time,” she promised him.

Keeper Bertram nodded and wandered off to his duties.

Waddle and Pegleg meanwhile, followed Rosalia out of the Keep.

“Well, my lady? How is Master Bertram?” Raven asked.

“He seems as he always does,” Rosalia replied with a contented smile.

“You certainly always seem a great deal more cheerful after speaking to him, my lady,” Alexis commented.

“Is that what this stupid expression on my face is? Oh dear.”


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