There was a thump in the night that went unnoticed. With the dense clouds, the soft patter of rain, and the thickness of the night suffocating the town of Bleaktop, none of the sleeping townsfolk heard that fatal sound. There was a rustle before, too, of steel cutting against flesh, but not even the deceased herself noticed. Not for longer than a moment, anyways.
The skies had been weeping the past several days. As I distanced myself further from my flock, it seemed the storm clouds grew thicker and advanced harder upon the eastern coast of the Moonlands. I could see the waves ripping, breaking apart beneath me on the shore in rifts of white foam, and then fading back to the blackness again. Even up here, as high above as the clouds, I shivered at the sight of the wrathful waters.
The wind was picking up, and although the rain was light, I decided to search for a place to stay. My wings were battered from all the travel, and I guessed that I had lost more than just a feather or two.
Folding in my wings, I straightened out my beak and cut through the air, diving, diving … A small town came into view, encased in dense fog.
As I neared the town, I could see only two houses lit by candlelight. Aiming for a one to land on, I was gusted by a particularly strong wind and smacked against a wooden sign. It was hanging from an iron post with a spiked end. I was happy I had not landed on that.
Bleaktop it read.
I shook some water from my feathers and flew up to the ruins of a watchtower. It seemed oddly full of life in its emptiness, because I could see so much of Death’s remnants here; crumbling stones, animal bones, and stray feathers were scattered all around.
There was a trapdoor, though it was shut tight with a padlock. My beak proved too fragile for the iron.
Seeking shelter elsewhere, I smelled something familiar in the air. It was Death’s scent. I was ravenous at the aroma of it. I am a carrion crow, after all, so I flapped away to investigate it.
It led me to an unlit house, not much different from the rest. The town Bleaktop, (if you could call it a town at all), has only four rows of houses, and they are all quite similar—even the inn and the blacksmith’s shop look the same despite the anvil and forge in front of the smith’s home.
This wooden house was two stories tall. The townspeople had a good supply of wood from the neighboring forest, and the stonemasons did well with whatever they could take from the cliffs.
I was impressed with the housing, but more interested with the smell coming through one of the cracked windows. It seemed my friend, Death, had been there rather recently, too. The scent wasn’t as sour as I preferred. It would need some time to age. Corpses are like wine; you have to let them breathe for awhile.
Despite the scrap of a ligament from a cliffside hyena, I had not eaten in a long while. It was hardly satisfying, eating a fellow scavenger. I felt that, in a strange way, I was eating myself.
I perched at the top of the house. The rain had stopped, and the smell of the rotting body was wafting up to me. It wrapped around me in an embrace. Ducking my head under a wing, I let thoughts of decomposing bodies lull me into sleep.
I wondered how long it would take the townspeople to haul out the corpse.
I awoke to late morning, with the sun already risen above the tree line. Usually my flock would stir me before dawn, but I had left them as I had left the promise of life itself. They simply stole too much food for my liking. They pushed me away with their constant squawks and caws, how they fed my stomach with the idea that I may eat, only to arrive upon the scene to find bones as white and clean as ivory on the hilt of a swordsman.
Carrion crows are quite civilized—until we find a body. Then we earn the alliteration ‘carrion’ before our name. In my experience, I have not come across any other animal deserving of such alliteration. Have you ever heard of a ravenous rooster? Or perhaps a daunting dove? No, you haven’t. That’s because they are undeserving of such shame. Such literary mocking is reserved for the creatures with peculiar, outlandish attributes.
There were eyes staring up at me; at least a dozen pairs. Old, young, middle-aged, and even a pair of blind eyes. And they all were squinting up at me.
They were murmuring to one another. Each of their various interests and theories of my being there were piqued and enticed by each passing second. It unnerved me, so I unfolded my wings and stretched, cawing a little to get the rawness out of my throat.
“It moved!” a child cried. It was nearly enough to startle me from my perch, had I not been so high above them.
“Hush, child,” the mother said, “you may scare the crow away.”
“That’s not a crow! That’s a raven!” he cried.
The husband, like the mother, had orange hair. It extended down to his face in a full beard, which he rubbed in deep thought. “That’s a crow, son,” he said gently.
The others were silent, looking up at me and back at the townspeople. Their necks must have been hurting. I know mine was as I craned down at them.
“It’s a raven! It’s alone! Crows are never alone,” the child said.
I tried to tell him just how wrong he was, but only squawks came out.
“No … No …” his father mumbled, sounding unconvinced with himself.
Finally, the voice of reason came from the crowd—in a stammering, soft kind of way. It was an elder, and I could not see the hue of his eyes hiding beneath the thick bushes of his eyebrows. “That … my dear child … is a carrion crow. I was thinking for long just what type … and finally decided. It is a fledgling …” he shuffled his feet, looking around at them with squinty eyes, clutching a walking stick. Sea shells and fish bones clattered against the wood as he moved, and at the top of it a small tree was growing. The roots were digging into the wood, spiraling down. It was scarcely large enough for me to perch upon, that tiny tree. “… Yes, a fledgling,” he finally concluded, “must’ve been gusted away in a storm.” Then he chuckled, like all elders chuckle, as if every small fact of life is something to muse about.
The wife of the elder smacked him with her own, rather plain, staff. “Fools, the lot of you … all worried and arguing about what the cursed thing is and not why it’s there!”
Everyone, even the elder, looked humbled by this.
“S’pose it means someone has died,” someone said, “it’s a bad death—an ill one! The soul is as black as the fowl’s feathers.”
I cawed at him. Wrong.
“Aye, though it’s tellin’ us to be warned—someone else might die, soon, as well. Look at how it screeches at us every time someone says somethin’. It’s a warning, I tell ya’,” someone else said.
It wasn’t. Wrong again.
“What do you lot know?” a younger man said, nudging his way to the front of the crowd. He was had the look of an adventurer; wearing weather-beaten leather and a black cloak that had long since faded to grey. He had a bow and a sword on his hip, as well as a quiver at the opposite side. “What have you seen of Netherway, of the Moonlands? Safe up here in your little town, harvesting fish from the sea. I see no crops, I see no labor! You know naught of the world! This crow here is telling you this entire town will be cursed for being so damn fortunate while the rest of the world rots. In all my travels, I’ve seen!—Ouch!”
A burly man with a blacksmith’s apron hit the adventurer over the head with the butt of his hammer. “Shut your mouth, boy,” he growled, “or find another town to stay at.”
The traveler scowled at him and rubbed his head, slinking back into the crowd.
I was sorry to see I had caused so much trouble. It seemed to me I had become somewhat of a harbinger of doom to these townsfolk. In my silent coming, I had made a prophecy, and overnight, fulfilled it myself with a death. Now they were piecing together what to make of it.
But really, I was just hungry.
“Well,” the mother of the child said, “it seems to me this is Sarona’s crow. She was a warlock, after all. Warlock’s can turn into crows, can’t they? And if they don’t, they may use them as messengers.”
The husband continued to caress his beard thoughtfully, while the child still looked to be mulling over whether I was a crow or a raven. “Who knows what evil magick she was weaving,” the husband said. “Seems to me whatever it was finally came back around the tides to get her. Witches don’t last long, anyways.”
For that, the husband got a slap. “Sarona didn’t hurt a soul. She casted only good magick, and we all knew it! And she preferred the term ‘warlock.’ We should respect her wish. Rather have a peaceful ghost than a vengeful one.” Looking up at me, she said, “Apologies, Sarona.” She must’ve thought I was the warlock reincarnated.
I wasn’t Sarona. I wanted to eat her body, though.
Scrutinizing the crowd, there was only one face that made my feather’s bristle. He had cold eyes and a clenched jaw, often looking around with a subtle nervousness, scanning each window as if something might pop out and scare him. He was the quietest of all. For the first time that morning, I smelled something other than grief, curiosity, or Death; I smelled guilt. Doubtless, I had found the true bringer of the woman’s demise.
“Speaking of vengeful ghosts,” the blacksmith started after I had finally ceased, “we should get her body from out of her resting place and into a consecrated grave before long. It’s bad luck to leave a body in a home for long. Perhaps we can figure this omen after we’ve done the proper burial rites, aye?”
The blacksmith was a practical man. He wasn’t sure about deities, destinies, or lonesome crows. He was a man of iron and steel. I would’ve crowed in agreement with him, except that it seemed each time I did, I got the folks to wondering about my being there, and the timing of my calls. People will find significance in nothing. There is significance, however, in a full belly.
Drawing his sword, the adventurer said loudly, “I’ll go in first!” and kicked in the door, sending splinters of wood into the quiet home of the warlock. I’m not sure what a sword is to a phantom or ghost, though he made himself look like an ass with it. The blacksmith sighed, shook his head, and followed. The mother of the child went afterward, murmuring to the rest that she knew a few prayers for the deceased by heart.
I admired the mother the most.
The blacksmith lead the way out, carrying the body by the shoulders while the mother was at the foot. The adventurer followed last in a sluggish, stunned pace. His face was stark pale and his eyes were stricken with fear at the sight of the body. The sword he once wielded so bravely was now limp in his hand.
She was covered by one of her bedsheets, stained by blood.
It began to rain again.
I tapped anxiously on the roof while I waited for an opportunity to steal a scrap or two. She smelled ripe enough, now, and I reckoned the flesh was soft and cold. I looked on greedily.
Then, I noticed him again: the nervous man. The way he stared at the body and lingered at the back of the crowd—which was now the entire town. It was enough to ruin an appetite.
“Murdered,” the blacksmith said grimly to the crowd. I cawed in the direction of the man.
“How do you know?” the husband asked, ignoring me.
The adventurer turned a shade of green, and sprinted to a patch of grass to vomit.
“Found a bit of things missing in her room, a drawer disheveled, the insides of her cabinets overturned. Sarona didn’t strike me as a lady who would throw around her belongings. Likely just a thief … a cutthroat.”
Nobody had anything to say to that. If I was human myself, I’d be silent, too.
One of the children in the crowd started toward Sarona’s body.
His father meant to stop him. “Son, this is not for your eyes,” he said to the boy, but he was not quick enough, and the child sprinted under his legs with his arms outstretched, towards the frayed ends of the bedsheets.
Stop, child! I cawed at him, but he payed no heed, and lifted the bloodied fabric away from the warlock’s face.
Everyone gasped at the action, then the child began to cry, staring at his cold, dead mistake. It was not for his curious eyes, after all. The corpse was a mess of blood, and her neck was gaping open at us all.
Swiftly, the mother picked up her wailing child and covered his eyes, hushing and caressing him.
Just when the father was red with anger, the blacksmith was distracted by the adventurer’s ceaseless vomiting, and the crowd was murmuring to one another, I knew it was my chance. I swooped down, landing where the soft flesh of the neck would by easy to tear off.
Then, just as I was about to take a nibble, I sensed something strange about her. Death had been here, but he was not successful in his duties. There was something left in the body. Something …
The warlock sprang to life, alive.
She sat up, a small amount of blood spilling from the wound as she did. For the first time, I was too shocked to fly away. I just stumbled onto her thigh and stared at her, too frightened to croak a caw. Beyond the dead rising, beyond the splash of blood—I was shocked to find this above all else: she was beautiful.
The rest stammered, gawked, and backed away with little shrieks and curses. I was gawking, too, but for a different reason.
She smiled at me, and stroked my neck. Now, I could never eat her. Not a morsel. I bristled at the touch, and nudged my neck against her fingers. Her eyes were the bluest I had ever seen; blue like enchanted waters you only saw in dreams. Her skin had grown tight around her face, to reveal more of her eyes, more of her white teeth under those full, pale lips.
“Gods be praised …” the blacksmith said.
The valiant adventurer fainted.
The mother was so shocked that the child was able to pull his eyes out from under her hand, to see what had made the adventurer collapse, and what had hushed an entire town.
I pitied the boy. Seeing her dead, and then moving the next moment. It was not something anyone could fathom, let alone a child. It was so esoteric, I began to wonder if his young age might actually be an advantage to grasping the concept.
Regardless, I was infatuated with her. My whole life I had craved dead things, to eat them, to tug on their skin and devour them; to feel the cold resting in my belly during a summer flight. It was bliss. But to be touched by something dead … and moving.
I called it love.
“There’s not a single p—prayer to say for this …” the mother stammered.
Shakily, the warlock got herself on her feet. I hopped to the ground and looked up at her. It seemed everyone had forgotten me.
She tore off a strip of the bedsheet and tied it around the wound on her neck. That was more for us than for her, I think. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. A graceful anger came upon her face, and she pointed into the crowd. The elder was in the way of her finger, so he stepped aside, and behind him the mother’s husband; and then two more townsfolk. Once they all moved, there was a clear view of a man sprinting away from the scene. It was the nervous man, her murderer—the cutthroat.
The warlock was suddenly as full of life as a young maiden. Her flesh, cold and dead as it was, served her well. Stumbling to the unconscious adventurer, she wrenched the bow from his body and took two arrows from the quiver.
Do I recall anyone doing anything about this? Was there a single movement in the crowd?
She nocked an arrow. Everyone was tensed, staring dumbfounded and bewildered at the running man. She pulled the taut string back to her jaw … and eyed me. I understood instantly.
Never have I flown so swiftly.
I’m sure, from their vantage point, my little fledgling wings looked possessed by some demonic influence, for I was upon that man faster than the warlock could judge the shot and let the arrow loose.
I pecked at him and buffeted his head. It gave her the briefest moment when he was standing almost still, trying to fend me off from devouring his eyes. I don’t usually eat things that are alive, but for the warlock, I would have eaten anything.
Her arrow was true. It pierced through the man’s heart, flecking me with his blood. I screeched at him while he went to his knees, horrible, terrible curses in crow-speak. The steel arrowhead had gone clean through, and was dripping crimson onto the street while I perched on his head, pecking more at his eyes.
A second vibration went through him and into my talons. The other arrow was a little less merciful, and went through his groin.
I had gobbled both of his eyes before he was dead, and was working my way to his neck when I looked up and saw the warlock striding toward me me, looking pleased. She had a smile as beautiful as any of the living’s, and her eyes shimmered in the daylight.
She outstretched her hand to me, as if I was human and she was grasping for my palm. I flew to her hand, and she stroked me again, even wiped off the blood from my beak. If I had cheeks, I would have blushed.
Good crow, she just barely managed to whisper.
I rubbed my neck against her cheek, and perched on her shoulder.
She walked back to the crowd, which parted around her when she got close enough, and then closed back in like doors to watch her.
“Sarona?” the mother asked.
The warlock stopped to turn toward her, and then approached. She looked as if she was going to raise her hand to touch hers, or to say something of thanks to her, but she must have thought against it, for she remained silent, stood silent as ever, indecisive.
“Apologies …” the mother murmured, and back away.
Sarona looked at each of them, sharing a nostalgic glance, and finally, stopping at the spade which the blacksmith held in his hand. She walked up to him, never looking away from the object. I bobbed on her shoulder and looked into his eyes. If ever had there been a kind heart turned into a frightened one, it was then.
His grasp was so weak, it practically fell from his hand.
In that moment, the soft wind and the light, pattering rain was louder than anyone else. No one dared to shuffle their feet—too afraid to anger the corpse into another act of swift vengeance.
Le-e-eave, she told them. Tomorr-r-row … no bodies t-then.
The crowd withdrew at the last utterance. Everyone who lived on the same street took a last peek before shutting their doors, and then never again—all too eager to wrap themselves up in bed and be done with the nightmare.
Besides the still unconscious adventurer, I was alone with her.
G-goood crow, she said to me with a twitching smile. One of her eyes drooped to look at me, and I nibbled playfully at her ear.
With the spade, she began digging her own grave beside her house. I dug my claws deeper into her skin to stay rooted on her shoulder. She didn’t complain—I doubted she could feel it anyways.
It took her hours before it was finished. By then, midnight had swung around and a full moon was brilliantly lit, casting a liquid, ethereal light upon us.
Once, when the warlock accidentally struck a rock, the adventurer perked himself up and looked around. After catching sight of her, the three of us shared an awkward moment of fixed stares—until he simply fainted again.
The warlock did something of a chuckle then, but it was so guttural it sounded more like choking.
All too soon, the grave was finished. She tossed the spade aside and looked at me with a sadness.
T-t-time to le-eeave, lit-tle croow. She stroked the scruff of my neck. I closed my eyes in enjoyment while she sat down in the grave. Simultaneously, the adventurer rose up, with a violet light bound around his hands, his eyes closed; he was not truly awake, it seemed. It was her magick, again.
The bewitched adventurer took up the spade, and shoveled dirt over her. A few tosses caught me on the face, and I cawed morosely. Then he stopped, standing still like a human scarecrow.
Unle-es you want to lay beside … this s-shell, lit-tle crow … go. F-fly to … ne-e-arby hill, she said with a twitching wink, before allowing him to continue. Reluctantly, I flew away from her and squatted at a distance, watching until the last of the dirt covered her up. Then the adventurer dropped to the ground like a sack of dirt himself, and looked at me strangely.
Idiot, I cawed, before flying away.
The images of her body being covered by dirt made me want to cry. I missed having the ability to cry. Being a human made letting out emotions easier. Now, all I could do was caw sorrowfully. It occurred to me, then, it must be why humans are so bothered by noisy birds. They are listening to them complain quite often.
I came upon the hill that the dead warlock told me to fly to. I expected to find nothing, perhaps another body. Instead, there was a soft, blue hue at the top. It was in the shape of the warlock, herself.
I realized, after hovering above the strange glow for awhile, that it was her spirit.
You have been controlling your body from here this entire time? I asked her, knowing that most spirits can understand animals.
Indeed, little crow. I wished to say more to the villagers, and to thank that poor mother, and to pierce that sad man in the head with more arrows. Alas, it is difficult to do such things when the blood has gone cold. To think that I was killed by a drunkard with a lust for coin, and the stupidity to … she trailed away. The details of her naked, almost blue body were being wafted in the breeze. Her hair was flowing just as any normal human’s, and whipped over her eyes as she looked away to think.
She was still beautiful, even if she wasn’t a corpse anymore. I enjoyed her company so much, that I felt a little cheated by the gods to be led to her just as she was meant to depart this world.
You flatter me, crow.
I hoped you weren’t the type of warlock to read minds, you know, when they are meant to be private.
If you were human, you would wear your emotions on your face. And right now, you would be blushing.
I was silent. She knew what I was thinking, anyways.
After awhile, she asked, Where is your flock, crow? Haven’t you a nest or family?
Life is too short and too sweet to share it with those that make it bitter. I belong to no flock.
And yet you clung to me as if I was life itself, before I threw myself into a grave. I couldn’t help but notice you did not tear me to pieces, either.
Her voice was sweet, gentle like chimes through my head, flowing the way that wind goes under my wings during flight.
There are few that make me willing to share life with. And even fewer who would make me want to share something most precious—death. That is why I would not eat you. You seemed like pleasant company for both.
You are a strange crow, do you know this?
I nodded. I wish I could be dead so I could fly along with you in the afterwards. Perhaps I should have stayed in the grave, after all.
There is no need for the afterward, for now. We still have a right to stay here.
The naked warlock crouched down in front of me and held out her hand. Come, there is still some life to be enjoyed, I can linger here a little while longer.
I doubted it would work, yet when I hopped onto her hand, I felt the weight of her energy holding me up. Where will we go now? I cawed at the pale moon.
As you very well know already: wherever the wind takes us, little crow.