A Murder of Crows

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Blood

Guiscard enjoyed the winter- something he thought he would never do. He absolutely hated the cold but the snow meant that Rosalia had to serious engagements that demanded she left the castle or the city either.

The two were spending a lot of more time together.

Despite Rosalia’s busy schedule, Raven had been putting Guiscard in her study with her as he noticed that the mage helped her relax despite her workload.

And he was a quiet companion as well when he had a book with him and so didn’t get in the way of her work, meaning he could keep her company as well.

But then Guiscard knew that the calm peaceful days with his beloved Rosalia were not meant to last.

Winter soon departed and the snow started to melt, making way for spring.

And further battles.

This meant Rosalia was spending most of her time out in her borders, battling to claim more land for Crawford and defending her own lands from her enemies.

It was one evening, after dinner when he found himself once again, waiting anxiously for the latest messenger, that he realised; he seemed to be playing the role of the tragic lover of a knight in war.

It didn’t feel as romantic as the bards described it to be.

He felt fear creep into his heart when the steward entered the hall after speaking to the messenger.

The man looked as calm as he always did.

Which was good; it meant her ladyship is still safe and well.

But then again, the man was one who kept a cool head no matter the situation. He was the perfect steward.

Thomas relayed whatever orders her ladyship had to the captain of the guards and bailiff and the scribes present before going over to Guiscard to speak to him.

When Rosalia left, Thomas told Guiscard that they would often have runners coming back and forth between the front lines where Rosalia was and the castle. He said that if the man was interested in writing to her ladyship, he could easily do so and have the letter sent with the reports.

“Would she actually read my letters?” Guiscard had asked Thomas, sounding fairly sceptical when the man had informed him.

“When her ladyship spoke to me before she left, my lady gave me the impression that she was expecting them,” he had said.

“She’s expecting letters? From me?” Guiscard asked, his hope rising once more.

“Yes, her ladyship said, ’I would expect Scholar Guiscard would like to show off his penmanship and pen letters about himself in a way, I would not be able to retaliate so let him’,” the steward informed him with a grin.

“Well then, if her ladyship grants me her consent, then yes, perhaps I shall,” he had said.

So with each report that was sent to Lady Rosalia, Guiscard would pen a letter to her as well.

He never actually received a reply from her ladyship but he did receive a single letter from Guardsman Raven.

The guard wrote to thank Guiscard for his letters as Rosalia seemed to enjoy them and had taken to keeping his letters in a private, small chest in her tent.

So he kept writing.

Meanwhile, he kept up his more intensive classes for the future teachers he had selected. However, on the days where he used to tutor Rosalia, he had taken to going down to the city and simply teaching whoever was interested in learning their letters and numbers.

The amount of folk who started to attend his classes had grown at such a rate that the bailiff had to arrange for them to make use of a larger hall in the city.

But on the one day out of the week where he was not teaching, he remained holed up in the library.

He was intentionally keeping himself busy.

It was the only way he could keep his mind off Rosalia and all the horrible scenarios that could possible befall her.

*

Lady Rosalia Crawford stepped out of the tent after the war meeting.

She was dressed in a shirt and breeches, dirt streaking across her face and a tired look in her eyes.

She looked like just about any other soldier present, worn and exhausted.

The only thing that told of her station in life was the family ring with a black garnet set into it and her family sword.

Rosalia paused, rubbing the back of her neck.

With her soldiers about, she could not afford to show weakness. But her chest was hurting again. She was trying not to let her hands tremble.

“My lady,” Alexis said, both him and Raven by her side as always, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Rosalia said though her breathing was more laboured than usual, “I’m just a little tired, that’s all. I think I’m going to rest for a little while. We march at dawn.”

“Yes, my lady,” Raven said, “Would you like us to bring you your dinner to your tent?”

“Please.”

As they headed towards Rosalia’s tent, she stopped to greet some of the crows who had come to see her. One of them consented to fluttering over to perch on her arm, allowing her to carry it into her tent.

There was a perch for the crows in her tent.

They played the roles of messenger birds as well, carrying important messages back and forth between the camps.

They used to be quite troublesome to work with as they seemed to be pranksters by nature.

But Rosalia’s maternal grandmother saw the use of having them as messengers as they were found all over Galadier and went to each flock across their territory to speak to them, requesting their aid.

And of course, they consented as they were easily bribed with shiny objects and food.

“Here you go,” Rosalia said letting the crow perch and offering the crow a bit of bread from her breakfast.

The crow stuffed as much bread as it could into its beak before rufflings it feathers and settling down.

Rosalia meanwhile kicked off her boots with a sigh of relief and went to lie down on her bed.

She was exhausted and in pain.

Alone in her tent, she let herself cough and wheeze.

It was getting worse.

The healer at camp had given her some medication to help combat the symptoms but it wasn’t working.

She grimaced and rolled to her side, hoping to try and get some sleep.

Rosalia always slept badly when out in the field. There was a part of her mind that was constantly waiting for someone to call her or to hear the alarms ringing.

And the new injuries she had sustained in battle had been making matters worse.

Her mind went over the details of the meeting.

The battle over the plains was going to be difficult. They did not hold the most desirable of positions.

Ideally, Rosalia would have called for reinforcements to even the odds but their closest post was dealing with Lord Sinclair’s harassment from the north. They reported that they could not offer any support without losing ground.

And that post guarded several important farming villages. Losing them would cripple the Crawford supplies.

She had to weigh the odds.

Her commanders had stated making away with acceptable losses but she refused to think of it that way.

She refused to reduce the lives of her soldiers and people to numbers.

They may be expandable to her cause- but they were important in the lives of loved ones.

The commanders were also reluctant to let her lead the battle with such slim chances of victory. But she didn’t want her soldiers to think that she thought the battle was a battle lost by her absence.

Her head was starting to hurt as well.

After a little while, Rosalia sat up and picked up the little chest by her bedside. Unlocking it with the little key she wore on the chain around her neck that held the Goddess’ symbol, she opened it.

Inside were Guiscard’s letters.

She enjoyed reading them, tracing her fingers over the flowing, neat handwriting.

His writing was so much like his personality.

Flowery and almost ornamental but still neat and clear.

Rosalia herself had still yet to reply to a single one of those letters.

And for an excellent reason.

She had absolutely no idea how. When she read reports, she could easily reply to them. After all, that was what she was raised to do. She had sat on her father’s knee as he worked and during the meetings with the council and his advisors.

But Guiscard wrote of personal things. Things that she never had any experience in handling. His latest letter spoke of how he missed the sight of her ‘obsidian eyes’ and ‘rose bud lips’.

Rosalia placed a hand over her lips, a fresh cut still healing over the top lip and stinging.

She wasn’t sure just what kind of manner Guiscard saw her in nor was she entirely sure what to do with the matter.

Rosalia drew her knees up, still rereading the letter.

As much as she hated to admit it- she was beginning to miss his company.

Whenever she was dealing with the reports from home, allowing herself a moment of distraction, she’d look up and expect to see Guiscard in the nearest seat, reading a book or watching her with a smile.

“My lady?”

Rosalia jumped and shut the chest with a snap that made the crow jump, “Yes?” she said.

Raven raised an eyebrow and smiled. “You miss him, my lady?” he asked, going over.

“I… well-“ she said, turning red before scowling, “Was there something you needed, Raven?” she asked instead.

“I came to refill your water jug, my lady,” he said, carrying the jug of drinking water.

Rosalia nodded and let him deal with it as she set the chest aside again.

“How are the soldiers?” she asked.

“They are all in fairly high spirits after yesterday’s victory, my lady,” Raven reported.

“We won a battle, Raven- one battle does not mean a victory. We still have a long way to go,” Rosalia said, scowling to her self, “They may have retreated for now but-“

“My lady, I was there with you in the meeting,” Raven said patiently as he poured some water they had heated up into a little a basin, “Please relax when you have the chance to do so.”

He knelt down, removing the bandages that he had tied round Rosalia’s ankles and feet for support.

When he was done, he set her sore feet into the warm water and smiled when Rosalia heaved a sigh of relief.

“Better, my lady?”

“Yes, thank you,” she said, falling back to lie down again as Raven washed her feet.

Raven glanced up at her.

He always worried about her when she got like this.

She was obsessed with succeeding.

She had been trained her whole life to lead Crawford to victory. But the strain was affecting her deeply.

Every decision.

Every mistake.

They did not just affect her but the thousands of lives in the Crawford territory who were depending on her.

And that thought haunted Rosalia every waking moment of the day.

“The crows have already spoken that you will unite the lands, my lady,” Raven said, “They had promised it. You have nothing to fear.”

Rosalia stared at the ceiling of the tent.

“Prophecy or not, I am still the one who must fight for it to come to pass,” she said, crossing her arms over her eyes.

Raven said nothing as he took her feet out of the water and started drying them with a towel. He rubbed her sore feet.

“How is Alexis? Is he taking a rest?” Rosalia asked, “The healer said to take it easy when he can.”

“He’s perfectly fine, my lady,” Raven replied, “He’s with some of the other soldiers. They’re having a card game right now- there’s no money involve in this. They aren’t gambling.”

Raven knew Rosalia was strict when it came to gambling and prostitutes amongst her soldiers.

“I see.”

“There, my lady,” Raven said, setting her feet down, “Do you feel better now?” he asked.

He had noticed her limping slightly earlier.

“Yes, thank you.”

“How are your injuries? Do you require new bandages?”

“They’re fine. The healers have already changed my bandages this morning,” she said.

Raven smiled and started binding her feet and ankles with clean bandages, “There we are, my lady.”

“Thank you Raven- I don’t know what I’d ever do without you,” Rosalia told him.

“And you will never need to find out, my lady,” Raven replied, picking up the basin, “Now please rest. I’ll get rid of this water and fetch dinner for you later,” he said, tickling the watching crow in the chest.

Rosalia laid down on her good side to sleep. The crow that she had befriended decided to join her and flapped its wings, fluttering over to her. It hopped about and found a comfortable space to nest.

“Rest well, my lady,” Raven said, drawing the blanket over her with a free hand.

Rosalia murmured something and he left quietly to empty the basin in the dirt outside.

Once he was done, Raven headed over to look for Alexis who was still playing cards with a few soldiers who were too injured to join in the drills.

Alexis looked up when he saw him approaching, “How is her ladyship?” he asked at once.

Raven sat next to him and looked at the cards he had at hand.

Alexis was never the luckiest man when it came to cards and dice, nor was he the most skilled. If he weren’t the Lady Crawford personal guard, the poor man would have sorely been taken advantage of.

Raven took the cards from him and started rearranging them. “She’s fine. Her ladyship is resting,” he replied, “I think she may be missing Master Guiscard though,” he said, throwing down a few cards and picking up more from the stack, “She goes through his letters whenever she can.”

Alexis who was taking a drink of water, choked at once.

“What?” he said, staring at him, “But… Master Guiscard is so-… so… self absorbed! What does he even write in those letters anyway? Did he do something… in them to ensnare her ladyship?” he asked, not wishing to bring up magic as there were others present.

“I have no idea,” Raven said calmly, “It is not my place to read her ladyship’s personal letters. But I highly doubt he would need to resort to such things.”

Alexis frowned.

Raven glanced at him but said nothing.

“Here,” he said, handing his cards back to him, “This should give you a better chance of winning.”

“Oh thank you- where are you going?” Alexis asked.

“I’m going to join the drills.”

*

Lady Rosalia Crawford let out a roar of triumph from under the crow shaped helmet, raising her sword high as her soldiers drove the last of Lord Sinclair’s army to the other side of the river, claiming the plains.

Her soldiers echoed her call, cutting down the remaining enemy soldiers who did not manage to retreat.

Rosalia’s face was flushed from the victory.

Their plans were progressing perfectly. If they could hold onto the plains whilst they built up a proper post there, they can progress to claim the mountains across the river.

Slowly but surely, Lord Sinclair’s influence will waver.

If things continued as they were, they would crush Lord Sinclair and the rest of the warlords were too spineless to be a threat in the first place.

For the first time in a long while, she saw a glimmer of hope that this war would actually come to an end.

That her people will finally be able to live as they should.

We can do this.

A sharp pain made Rosalia grimaced, coughing before barking out the order, “Start setting up the encampments!” making sure to keep an eye on the mountains across the river and at the soldiers who were desperately trying to swim to safety.

Some of her archers were ready to shoot them as they retreated but Rosalia stopped them.

“They’re finished,” she said, “They can do nothing more. If they dare, let them rally again for another attack and die.”

Better to let them die a warrior’s death than a coward’s.

The archers reluctantly lowered their bows.

“My lady,” Alexis said, riding his horse back to her side, “How is your leg?” he asked.

An arrow had imbedded itself into her thigh during the battle. She had snapped the end off of it but the arrowhead was still imbedded in her flesh, stopping her blood from flowing.

The archer had managed with sheer luck and it had taken Rosalia all she had to simply remain on her horseback when she was shot.

Luckily both Raven and the crows had been close at hand so no one could land a blow on their lady as she tried to recover.

“It hurts,” Rosalia said, her breathing harsher than ever as her chest burnt and the pain her past and new injuries were causing her weren’t helping in the slightest,” I want it out now,” she told them through clenched teeth.

“Get a healer-“ Alexis said at once but Rosalia stopped him.

“The healers have more dire patients to see to,” Rosalia panted, “Raven?”

“I’ll handle it, my lady,” he said, “Alexis, get some bandages and brandy from the healer. You there- bring me a pot of water.”

Raven carried Rosalia to a quieter spot, away from the masses of soldiers who were already celebrating their victory and quickly started a fire.

The soldier returned with a pot of water as the crows landed in the tree Rosalia was resting against.

Raven glanced at Rosalia as he washed her wound with water.

Her breathing was heavy and laboured.

That was worrying.

But it could just be from the stress of the injury.

“Forgive me, my lady,” Raven said, tearing a hole in her breeches over the wound.

He washed his hands as Healer Emwik had taught him to and fished the knife out of the pot of boiling water. He had done the simple procedure several times before, but even then, he ran his mind methodically over each step the old healer had taught him.

Carefully, he cut open her pale flesh to widen the entry point of the arrow.

Rosalia pressed her head back against the hard trunk of the tree, clenching her teeth to stop from yelling as Raven carefully and slowly removed the arrowhead, taking care not to leave any part of it behind.

When he was done, he washed the wound with the brandy causing Rosalia bite back another yell of pain, gripping Alexis’ hand so tightly, he feared she’d break his bones.

“Alexis, bandages,” Raven said.

“Here.

He bound the injury tightly and looked at her carefully, “There, my lady. I apologise for the pain.”

She shook her head, still not trusting herself to speak as she let go of Alexis.

“The current advice to give is to keep your weight off it when you can,” Raven told her, “I will retrieve a walking stick for you, my lady.”

“Thank you, Raven,” Rosalia said, wincing still, “I’ll have a healer check on it when they don’t have as many dying patients to deal with.”

She was still shaking.

The crows have already come flocking to pick off the corpses that littered the battlefield.

They did not touch the Crawford soldiers, only bringing their souls to the Goddess’ realm instead.

However, the same crow that had been following Rosalia about for the past few weeks, landed next to her. It decided that the kind of food Rosalia had been feeding it was better than carrion.

“I have no food for you now,” she told the crow.

But the crow hopped over and perched on her good leg, its weight warm and comforting.

Rosalia shut her eyes for a moment trying to calm herself.

“Raven, Alex- please go and assist the others,” she told them.

“But, my lady-“

“Just go. There are more soldiers who need help now. I’m fine here,” she said, picking up her sword.

They were not far off from the others who were already being placed on guard rotation.

“Shall we move your ladyship to somewhere more comfortable?”

“I’m fine here,” Rosalia said, trying to pet the crow, but her hands were shaking so violently, she didn’t want to show them.

Alexis hesitated but obeyed.

The sound of the crows filled the air as the Lady Crawford looked out over the massacre.

Blood was soaked into the ground, staining it red while bodies laid haphazardly on the ground, broken and lost

Rosalia coughed, shaking from the pain that was spreading from her chest.

How many of the dead were there- killed simply because they were following orders?

How many had not wanted to be there in the first place?

She coughed again, her breathing harsh and painful.

Had they families?

Families who would be greeted in the morn with new that their loved ones were now gone forever?

Torn away from them by the war.

Rosalia kept coughing.

She couldn’t breathe as tears slid down her cheeks.

The crow looked at her, hopping onto the ground and cawing

Rosalia turned to her side, the pain in her chest nearly blinding her as she hacked and coughed until she was sick.

The contents of her stomach splattered onto the ground, dyed a dark red by the blood from her lungs.

She coughed, retching over and over again, drenched in cold sweat.

The crow took flight at once.

Rosalia couldn’t stand up.

But the fire in her chest had spread beyond what she could control or hide.

The crow returned, and Rosalia heard the sound of running feet as Alexis’ voice called, “My lady!”

The pain was blinding.

She couldn’t breathe.

Her eyes fluttered shut, falling to the ground as the darkness took her.

*

Guiscard sat up with a gasp, upsetting Inky and the heavy book from his lap.

He looked round wildly, breathless and shaking.

Elias frowned and looked up, “Is everything alright? You dozed off for a minute there,” he said.

“Yes… yes,” Guiscard said, picking up the book, his eyes still wide as he tried to remember the dream he had, “Forgive me- I must have had a nightmare.”

“What was it?” Elias asked, “You’re drenched in sweat.”

He had never seen Guiscard that shaken- not even when her ladyship was trying to run him through with her sword.

“I… It was her ladyship,” he said quietly.

He had been confused simply because he had been viewing the world from a strange angle.

At once moment, he seemed to be soaring high in the sky over a bloody field and the next thing he knew, he was low to the ground, looking up at some dark, giant creature.

As more and more of his dream returned to his waking mind, he suddenly realised who that giant he had been looking at was.

It had been Lady Rosalia.

She had appeared so bloody and worn, staring out ahead of her.

And suddenly she had started coughing.

The coughs had sounded strange.

She just kept coughing… and then…

She had started vomiting.

It was when he heard the contents of her stomach being splattered on the ground that a familiar scent hit his nose.

He had recognised it at once from the memories of someone or something else.

It was the smell of blood.

Guiscard jumped again as Inky suddenly started cawing and trying to get out through the window.

“What on earth got into you?” Guiscard asked the bird but suddenly heard more cawing in the distance.

“No…” he heard Elias say under his breath as he got up and went to the window.

Guiscard looked out.

Flocks of crows were rising into the sky, practically shrieking.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong with the crows?” Guiscard asked, confused, trying to calm Inky down but the bird seemed to be in pure, blind panic.

It clawed at him and struck him with its wings.

Inky had been the sweetest, tamest crow when it was about him and he knew it would have never attacked if it were in the right state of mind.

Elias meanwhile was pale under his tanned face.

“What on earth is going on? Why are the crows behaving this way? They’ve gone absolutely mad.”

“I… I don’t know,” Elias said quietly, “I have only seen them behave this way once before.”

“When?” Guiscard asked, feeling a cold fear grip at him.

“When her ladyship Melanie passed away.”

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