A Murder of Crows

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Wolves and Spells

Guiscard shivered despite the amount of wraps he had on him.

“It’s freezing,” he muttered to himself as he trudged through the thick snow towards the forest in the dead of night, “I will never know how these northerners stand this kind of weather. I feel like ice.”

Curfew on the city had been called so the city gates were closed.

Raven had let him out through one of the gates and told him to return through that one to be let back in.

“And if you do not return by the midnight hour, I will track you down and kill you,” he told him.

“I could think of worst ways to my end,” Guiscard had replied with a bow and a wink.

Then Alexis got irritated with him and told him to just go.

Rosalia meanwhile had it announced that they were attempting to find a way to stop the wolf attacks. But she gave no other details.

And she did not have to.

The people there had complete faith in their Lady.

They had already buried Andrea that morning.

The crows of the city had been there, watching in silence.

Rosalia had been present as well to bid her old friend farewell.

Guiscard, feeling he would not belong at the funeral, remained at the distance, watching the procession.

He watched as one by one, loved ones threw black feathers into the grave before it was filled.

Rosalia had not wept during the ceremony, remaining sombre but calm throughout. But upon returning to the castle, locked herself in her study on her own, refusing to leave.

Raven had gone in to bring her supper but he was the only one who had seen her after the burial.

Everyone had been dressed in either black or white- the Goddess Noctis’ colour. But black was Rosalia’s usual garb.

Elias said that Rosalia had worn the colour black since her family’s death, only changing when she was riding into battle.

“My lady love is strong, but she’s still a child,” he said to himself, shivering under the wraps that Raven had given him.

As he entered the dark forest, he shivered again- but not out of cold.

The trees were dead, their bare arms waving like skeletal figures in the night, the moon casting a shadow onto the stark white ground.

It was just downright creepy.

Through the creaking of the branches in the whistling wind, he heard a noise that made him jump.

He spun around at once, sword at the ready.

How he wished Rosalia had consented to return his staff to him.

He could still use magic but with the staff, his attacks were far stronger and more precise.

But, in the end, there was nothing for him to be concerned about.

It was just a flock of crows who had come to watch.

“Did Lady Crawford put you up to this?” he asked them, putting his hands on his hips.

They cawed at the sound of a friend’s name and hopped about.

Guiscard spotted the familiar one legged crow perched on the branch.

“Oh, Pegleg is here too? At least I have someone in this bitter, lonely cold,” he commented before turning round and going deeper into the forest with the crows keeping up with him.

Guiscard wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for.

He supposed a wide clearing.

They had to be far enough from the city as well.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a reasonable clearing in the forest, would you?” he asked the crows.

They shuffled their wings for a moment, cawing to one another before taking off.

The little flock did not fly too quickly, constantly checking to make sure he was following them.

They soon came to a decent space for Guiscard to work with.

“Ah, thank you very much, Master Crows,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “Very well, let’s get to work.”

The birds perched in the trees, huddled together to stay warm.

Guiscard pulled out the pebbles from his bag. There were strange runes written on them. They were some form of Ancient with the strokes adapted for his magic spells.

He started placing them carefully in a perfect, fairly large circle, making sure that each rune was placed in the exact right order.

Pegleg fluttered down as he tried to complete the circle and gave a questioning caw.

“This?” Guiscard asked, the speech spells in place, “It’ll help me talk to your kind I suppose.”

The crow croaked.

“No, it absolutely has to be in a circle,” he said, “It’s the most effective way to amplify my magic. That’s how they work. They are the absolute perfect form- oh. Well- I didn’t expect you to look like that,” he said when he completed the circle and looked round at the bird.

Pegleg stood there, looking at itself.

“You may want to vacate the area before the wolves arrive, Master Pegleg.”

The crow looked at him before hopping out of the circle on one leg and taking flight back to its companions.

Once he was done setting up, he picked out several hunks of raw meat from his bag, looking at them in distaste.

The crows made various noises and one of the younger ones tried coming down to peck at the meat.

Guiscard picked him up at once and tossed him back up to the trees, “No you don’t. These aren’t for you. And I know for a fact that you lot are all pretty well fed despite the season.”

The crow was disappointed.

Guiscard meanwhile, left a hunk of meat in the circle with him.

He looked at the snow on the ground with distaste before carefully spreading a cloak out on it to sit on instead.

The crows cawed at one another, confused as to why he was sitting in the circle alone.

They could feel the magic beginning to fill the air but somehow realised now that they were not meant to approach.

Time passed and Guiscard was shivering from the cold when an eerie howl filled the air.

Finally.

He looked up and saw shadows moving between the trees.

The crows started puffing up and cawing in alarm.

Guiscard meanwhile, continued sitting there calmly, sending out his powers through the circle.

The wolves’ ears twitched.

They could hear it.

Soon, they started approaching, moving with grace and barely leaving a trace in the snow. Their eyes were gleaming in the dark, sniffing the air.

The younger wolves jumped for the meat only to be stopped by the older members of the pack.

Soon the wolves started tearing apart the meat, growling and snarling.

One wolf, however- no doubt the alpha of the pack, stood there, watching Guiscard.

Then it simply stepped forward to retrieve the piece of meat that Guiscard had left in the circle.

Guiscard blinked.

When he opened his eyes, he saw a man dressed in a wolf skin, tearing the bloody hunk of meat in his hands with his unnaturally sharp teeth.

His skin was pale grey with streaks of darker grey across it. Guiscard couldn’t see his face as he wore a wolf head over his own, leaving on his mouth visible. Blood from the meat dripped from his lips and covered his large hands.

The blood dripped onto the snow, staining the white ground crimson.

“That is beef straight from the castle kitchens,” Guiscard said to the wolf, “I hope it is to you taste.”

The wolf didn’t answer.

He finished the beef and licked the blood from his lips.

And finally he spoke.

Traitor.”

“Lovely,” Guiscard replied.

“What do you want from us? Why have you summoned us?” the wolf asked, his voice like a low growl.

“I have a request from the Lady Crawford.”

The wolf snarled at the sound of Crawford’s name.

“The crow woman!” he snarled.

The crow in the trees started cawing angrily, shrieking a challenge at the wolves that snarled in return.

Some of the wolves ran to the trees the crows were perched in, snarling and trying to get to the birds.

“Enough,” Guiscard ordered, “Unlike you, I do not have a coat of fur and I much return to the hearth as soon as possible,” he said, impatiently.

The wolf snarled, baring his teeth.

“So? What does the Crow Woman want?”

“The other day, your pack attacked and killed a young woman. A friend of Lady Crawford,” he said.

“So?”

“So, from what I understand, when you attack the people in Crawburgh or rather Crawford itself, you do not kill to eat,” Guiscard said.

“No,” the wolf replied.

“Then why do you attack them?”

The wolf bared his teeth again, snarling.

“These lands belong to us! Until the crows came and stole it from us. Thieves!” he snarled at the crows.

The crows insulted him in kind, hopping around in the branches.

Guiscard wished they wouldn’t try to interrupt.

He shook his head, “So, instead, your kind torment the people of Crawford for generations. That sounds like a marvellously mature decision,” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“What do you want from us, human?” the wolf demanded, snarling at him again.

“The Lady Crawford wishes for you to stop.”

“Why should we?” the wolf asked, “If she wants us dead, then kill us and let the God Lun smite her!”

Guiscard smiled, his usual charming smile that was a waste on the wolf.

“Oh, no Master Wolf. Her ladyship will not kill you,” he said, “And neither will I. But you should no now, o wolf- that I am not a regular human. I am a mage of old, wolf. Do you know what that means?” he asked.

The wolf watched him.

“It means,” he said with a smile, “That I can easily continue to torment your pack as you torment this folk. Imagine, having prey always just within your grasp but never succeeding in a hunt. Or that bear, finding the den where your pups hide. Or how terrible would it be to face fire whenever you try to find a new place to lay.”

The wolf snarled and lunged.

Guiscard lifted up a hand, fire erupting from it and forcing the wolf to jump back again in fear.

The wolf growled low, watching Guiscard.

The mage could see it was coming to a decision.

“We… will stop,” he said begrudgingly.

Guiscard smiled, extinguishing the flame cheerfully, “Good, I am relieved that we came to this settlement amicably. Also, if you could spread the word to the other packs across the Crawford lands, I would be ever so grateful,” he said with a smile, getting to his feet and neatening his clothes.

“Wait human.”

“Yes?”

“We will cease but in exchange the Crow Woman must create a shrine to the God Lun in her temples. And offerings must be given to us.”

Guiscard nodded, “Well, I will inform her of your wishes. But I would not expect much, especially this time of year. The crows themselves are being given stale bread and carrion as offerings.”

“Even if the offerings are naught but goat’s milk,” the wolf said.

“Very well,” Guiscard said, getting to his feet.

The alpha turned and stepped out of the circle, the illusion disappearing. It led the pack away much to Guiscard’s relief.

He hit the snow off his cloak and put it back on before collecting the pebbles and placing them in his pack. Best not to leave it there in case a hunter spotted a rabbit running through it.

“Alright, let’s go you lot. We need to report to her ladyship,” he told the crows.

Pegleg fluttered down, puffing up its feathers and shaking itself.

“Are you cold?” he asked the bird.

The crow cawed and continued shaking itself.

Guiscard wrapped Pegleg up in his scarf, “Alright, let’s go.”

*

“How did it go?” Raven asked.

“Quite well- shall I report to her ladyship now? Or shall we wait till morn when she’s awake?” Guiscard asked him, removing the cloak he had given him.

“Her ladyship is still in her study.”

“Ah, and here- thank you for the cloak.”

“Keep it. It isn’t from me, it’s from her ladyship,” Raven said with that knowing smile, “She said your usual clothes aren’t properly suited for this kind of weather.”

Guiscard seemed fairly surprised.

Raven smiled, putting his own cloak so they could return to the castle, “Her ladyship is perceptive. Just not in the way you clearly want her to be,” he said before they headed back to the castle.

Upon arriving at the castle, Raven saw Guiscard to the study. Alexis was waiting outside, scowling as always.

“How is her ladyship?” Raven asked him.

“My lady is working again,” he said, still scowling at Guiscard as he knocked on the door.

“Enter.”

Raven opened the door and Guiscard let Pegleg flap over back to Rosalia who was sitting at her desk as always.

“Oh, Pegleg,” she said, letting it perch on her arm and tickling its beak, “Were you cold out there?”

The crow cawed, nestling closer to her.

The hearth was burning merrily, much to Guiscard’s relief.

“I don’t have tea tonight,” Rosalia said, leaning back in her seat and cradling Pegleg carefully against her chest, “But the maids heated some milk.”

“Ah, thank you, my lady,” he said, pouring himself a mug.

Personally, he would have preferred brandy, but he would make do.

Rosalia waited for him to warm up, feeding Pegleg some nuts.

After awhile, she looked up, “I take it from your cheerful demeanour, that all is well?” she asked.

“Yes, they will leave the people alone but they have some requests for my lady in return.”

“Oh?” Rosalia asked, “And what are they?”

“They are just wolves,” Alexis said in a tortured whisper, prompting Raven to shush him.

“Yes, they ask for a shrine of the God Lun to be placed in one of the temples here in the city,” he said, “And also, they ask for food offerings no matter how small- maybe even goats milk, to be given to them. Like how you do for the crows,” he told her.

Pegleg made a noise that sounded like disapproval.

Rosalia scowled, quietening Pegleg.

“I despise wolves,” she said darkly.

“That’s the best I could do, my lady. I’m rather reluctant to kill them myself,” Guiscard said.

There was a moment of silence before Rosalia nodded.

“Very well,” she said, “We will do as they ask and see if they hold up their end of the deal. I will have everything arranged in the morn.”

“They’re… they’re wolves. Animals,” Alexis said again.

“I’m going to retire now,” Rosalia said, getting up.

“Yes, my lady.”

Guiscard stepped out of the study with her.

He bowed, “Good night, my lady. Sleep well,” he told her.

“Good night Scholar Guiscard,” Rosalia replied, “And… thank you.”

*

As time passed, the wolves seem to steer away from the city. Riders on the roads reported a lack of wolves as well which meant an easier time for travellers.

All they had to worry about were bandits, which the riders could deal with, with extreme prejudice, as commanded by their Lady Rosalia.

But meanwhile, as everyone was now safe- preparations for the Midwinter Festival started with ease.

People from around the lands started coming into the city to join in the celebrations.

A huge market along the streets of Crawburgh had been started up where people started selling their wares for the week.

There was a rental fee of course.

And most of the money earned was put back into the upkeep of the market itself and security.

Raven and Alexis spent most of this time on edge as Rosalia insisted on going down to the city personally every other day when not seeing to the work being done in the castle.

Guiscard preferred the warmth of the library but on one rare, sunny morning, he decided to join his lady love after breakfast and see what all the fuss was about himself.

“So this is an annual celebration?” he asked her as they walked through the crowd.

Alexis and Raven were busy keeping an eye on the crowd so they could not speak to Rosalia at the moment.

The people they passed, as busy as they were, stopped to greet their lady, even the children running about did the same.

“Yes,” Rosalia said, “Life here can be bleak since we are at constant war with the other warlords. So whenever we can, we have our celebrations to help raise morale.”

“So, you have the Midwinter Festival. What other celebrations are there, my lady?” he asked, smiling at a pretty young woman who called to him asking for him to come take a look at spices she had for sale.

“Well, we have the Harvest Festival. The people always enjoy that because of the food but we had to miss it this year due to the bad harvest,” she said, “And then there’s Beltane. But those are the only three we have. Are there an unnecessarily large amount of celebrations where you are from, Scholar Guiscard?”

“It depends what life you were born into,” Guiscard said, “If you were nobility, there would be a ridiculous amount of celebrations. One for every season, for every birthday, every patron god or goddess’ birthday and so on and so forth,” he explained.

They stopped because Rosalia wanted to greet some of the workers who were helping to decorate the market place.

“And speaking of birthdays, my lady,” he said, “Is there not a celebration for yours, my lady? Surely there is.”

“No, my birthday is like any other day. It does not matter in the grand scheme of things.”

“But it’s the day you came into existence, my lady. Surely that should matter enough.”

Rosalia shook her head before glancing at him, “What of you? I imagine you would enjoy throwin lavish parties where you are the centre of attention and drinking yourself into a stupor,” she said.

Guiscard chuckled, “As accurate as that portrayal of my person as that is, my lady- I am always the centre of attention at any gathering- I’m not fond of my own birthday celebration either.”

He was avoiding the subject of how it was celebrated.

He looked around and spotted the workers lifting the banners over the streets, “Quite an affair,” he commented, “I don’t think I’ve seen the city quite this cheerful since I arrived. Though, when I did arrive, I had a bag over my head most of the time,” he added.

They stopped again to greet a small group of children who were running about excitedly.

Guiscard rubbed his hands together.

It was absolutely freezing.

It was a wonder how those children could still run about in the snow like that dressed at the absolute minimal.

“Scholar Guiscard,” Rosalia called, standing amongst another group.

“Yes, my lady?” he asked, going over to her.

“Here,” she said, handing him a bowl of some sort of clear soup, “It’s herbal soup. It’ll help warm you.”

Guiscard looked surprised, “Oh, thank you, my lady.”

“Mother Emma was the one who made it,” she said, taking a bowl for herself.

Guiscard smiled and tasted it.

It was surprisingly flavourful for something that lacked cream and meat.

He smiled again at Emma and bowed, “This is absolutely wonderful, Mistress Emma. Thank you most kindly,” he said, his voice deep and charming.

Rosalia shook her head at his behaviour.

“Thank you, Mother Emma,” she said.

Alexis led them to a bench to sit while they kept an eye on what was going on around the pair- or more importantly, Rosalia.

Guiscard glanced at her as they sat together, drinking.

After a moment of this, Rosalia spoke, “What?” she asked, chewing on one of the pickled vegetables in the soup.

“I- ah, well- it’s nothing, my lady,” he said.

“Then stop looking at me.”

“I apologise.”

They finished their soup and returned the bowls to Mother Emma though Guiscard still seemed a little cold.

“You’re not used to the cold,” Rosalia observed.

“No, it didn’t snow where I was from.”

“And where is that?”

Guiscard smiled, “If I don’t answer will I be strung upside down and beaten with a stick?” he asked.

Rosalia actually cracked a smile.

“I will be tempted to do so,” she replied, “But no, you will not.”

“Then I feel that I should not answer,” he said, “I left my home for a reason and I rather leave my past where it belongs.”

Rosalia looked at him, “You ran away? I thought you were on the pursuit of knowledge.”

He shrugged with a smile, “A little bit of this and a little bit of that, my lady,” he replied.

“Hmph.”

Raven meanwhile, interrupted their conversation, “My lady,” he said, “We should return to the palace. I believe Mistress Claribel wishes to have a final fitting for your clothes this evening.”

“A fitting for your gown for the Midwinter Ball?” Guiscard asked keenly.

He looked as excited as he did when coming across a rare book.

Alexis meanwhile, snorted but quickly stifled it and replaced the laugh with his usual serious manner.

“I don’t wear gowns. I find it hard to move in and if there’s an assassination attempt, I need to be perfectly able to take care of myself,” she said, “However, Mistress Claribel tends to be creative her needle. A little too creative at times,” she added with a sigh.

“You would look gorgeous in a gown, my lady,” he said, “But I suppose with your appearance, you will look beautiful in just about anything.”

“My appearance doesn’t matter.”

Guiscard looked deeply offended but left it alone for more pressing matters.

“What on earth am I to wear?” he asked, worried, “I hardly have anything presentable for such an event.”

Rosalia glanced at him, “Would you like Mistress Claribel to prepare something for you?”

“I hardly think there’s enough time for her to do so,” Guiscard said.

“No doubt Mistress Claribel will pester the wardrobe keeper for more assistants,” she said, “I will introduce her to you. I haven’t a doubt that the two of you will get along very well.”

“What do you mean, my lady?”

“You’ll see.”

*

“Oh my, my Lady Crawford! Where have you been hiding this exquisite creature?” the tailor asked, gazing up at Guiscard, “Look at his stature! These broad shoulders and such long legs as well.”

“Yes, I am aware,” Guiscard said, “But have you not noticed this excellent profile? My jaw and chiselled cheekbones?”

“Oh yes, and your colourations are so unique, with that pale blonde hair and dark skin- I have the perfect idea. A complete black outfit with gold trimmings, perhaps dressed with a robe and leather gauntlets! The colours are a little unorthodox this season- but the would match her ladyship’s perfectly!”

“Matching, you say?” Guiscard said with a purr in his deep voice, “Well, I couldn’t say no to that, now could I?” he asked, looking at Rosalia.

“And black will cover up the blood from when I stab you in the chest,” her ladyship replied, leaving the room with an assistant for her fitting.

Guiscard heaved a sigh of longing, “Oh how I grow to adore her with every passing day,” he said, “I’d worship the ground she walks on if she would consent it,” he said.

“Is someone holding a candle for her ladyship then?” Claribel asked, requesting he remove his tunic so she could take his measurements.

Guiscard hesitated but obeyed.

The woman made no comment over his appearance and got to work.

“I doubt anything will ever come of it,” Guiscard told her, “But I’d like to agonise over it a little longer. It will be the death of me when she meets possible suitors during this ball.”

Claribel jotted down his measurements in her book as he quickly pulled on his tunic again.

“I hardly think anything will come of her meeting them,” Claribel said fairly, “Her ladyship has always been very independent. I believe she sees husbands and families as drawbacks that will get in her way,” she looked up from her book, “Not to mention- easy targets for assassins.”

Guiscard nodded and raised an arm so that Claribel could measure it.

“Her family’s death really left its mark on her, hasn’t it?” he commented quietly.

“Of course it would,” Claribel said softly, “Wouldn’t it have done the same to you?”

Guiscard couldn’t answer.

He was never particularly close to his own family.

“Now, why don’t you try on this shirt whilst I check on her ladyship? I just like to check on its fit.”

“Of course.”

She bustled off whilst Guiscard changed into the soft linen shirt.

The material was surprisingly comfortable and it looked very nice.

It had been a long while since he had worn something of that quality. And he rather missed it.

He would have liked to take it with him, unfortunately the shoulders were a bit too narrow for proper comfort. He’d probably rip the seams if he were to so much as try to throw a fireball.

Ah well, he supposed Mistress Claribel will be able to make a few more if he asked.

He checked himself in the mirror, carefully fixing the collar of the shirt.

He wasn’t usually one to wear black.

But he had to admit, it did his figure wonders.

The door to the next room opened and Rosalia strode in with Claribel and her assistants.

She stopped suddenly and stared at him for a moment.

Guiscard smiled, “Like what you see, my lady?” he asked, spreading his arms to let her have a better look of his appearance, “What do you think? Am I to your standards?”

Rosalia looked at him, her hand on the hilt of her sword.

“I will stop,” he said at once.

“Right, my lady, please give us a moment.”

She nodded.

As Mistress Claribel and her assistants left to make the final corrections to Rosalia’s clothes, her ladyship looked at Guiscard.

“You look nice,” she told him.

“Nice? Is that all?”

“Do not push your luck, Scholar Guiscard.”

He laughed and bowed, “Understood, my lady,” he told her. He wanted to kiss her hand but remembered she did not appreciate it when he tried to touch her, “Though… praise from her ladyship is high praise indeed, so I will hold it close to heart.”

Rosalia looked at him, confused.

“What is your game here, Scholar Guiscard?” she asked him.

“What makes your ladyship think I would consider this a game?” he asked.

She looked at him, unsure what to make of him.

Guiscard looked at her in return, knowing that speaking would not help the current situation.

He was just relieved that she was finally beginning realise what he felt for her.

“You…” she said softly.

But even as Rosalia spoke, Mistress Claribel returned with the completed outfit, “Here you are, my lady,” she said, “Please be careful with it. It is rather fragile.”

Rosalia nodded and had a maid carry it for her seeing how she was not the gentlest of women.

“My lady, the bailiff wishes to speak to her ladyship,” a runner informed her.

Rosalia nodded, “Thank you for your help, Mistress Claribel,” she said, “Your work is excellent as always.”

Guiscard had figured she was going to ignore him from that point considering how she usually did not take kindly to that kind of behaviour.

“I will see you at dinner then, Scholar Guiscard,” she said, coughing a little.

He looked at her in surprise.

“I- yes, my lady,” he said, smiling at her, relieved.

She nodded at him and left, Raven and Alexis joining her outside.

“How was the fitting, my lady?” Alexis asked.

“It went well,” Rosalia replied, “It looked a little strange but it was light and comfortable, I suppose. And she incorporated some light plate armour on it that will be able to offer a little more protection should the need arise,” she said.

“I see. Hopefully, it will not need to be put to use, my lady,” Raven told her.

“I will meet with the Spymaster this evening to discuss their side of the preparations. Alexis, what of the guards?”

“Captain Dawson will place the reports on your desk by tomorrow morn, my lady,” Alexis informed her.

“Understood.”

Rosalia tried to ignore how tired she felt.

True, there were only three main celebrations a year, but the preparations themselves tired her more than battles at times.

She could not simply stand about and order people to handle matters.

They were doing work in her name. She needed to now what they were doing at all times. She needed to be fully aware of their actions.

Father used to tell her that people could take advantage of the positions she had granted them and hurt her people.

She needed to make sure that it did not happen.

But it was a lot to deal with on her own.

She was finding it hard to breathe again.

But with Alexis and Raven by her side, she couldn’t let it show.

Her chest hurt.

She wanted to vomit.

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