She stumbled into the Crows' clearing, falling into a heap of cloak, skirts, and tangled blond hair. The silence here was even deeper than it had been in the rest of the forest and the sound of her gasping for breath cut through the air like a knife. Why was it so quiet here of all places? Nothing was right this evening and the cold feeling of dread that had begun to settle in her stomach as she tore madly through the trees to get here told her that things would never be right again.
It had been strange enough that there was no noise permeating the trees to begin with. The crickets were oddly silent and though it was almost unheard of to hear an owl in flight they were generally cordial enough to hoot out a greeting or two to the night, but there was nothing. Then, as if that weren't enough, the sounds from the grove had been missing as well. All the voices and flutes and drums, the strum of a lute or the glide of a bow across fiddle strings, not even then light caress of fingers across a lyre. There was nothing but the sharp sound of her breathing and the hard thump of her heart as it beat loudly in her ears.
She so desperately wanted to look up, to lift her face from the ground and see all of her friends surrounding their fire. They would be staring at her with their minds all abuzz wondering why she'd come bursting through the brush as if a demon were nipping at her heels. Her face had to be a sight, she knew, all covered in dirt and bramble scratches with lingering traces of sweat but they wouldn't hold that against her. No, they would all laugh and then she would laugh and then the merriment would begin because they had been waiting for her. That was why there had been no songs or noise; they didn't want to start without her.
A soft sob escaped her lips which was quickly followed by a gag as the feeling in her stomach worsened. They weren't waiting for her, they never had before so why would they now? There was another reason for their silence and though she wanted fiercely to know that reason, needed to know it, she still couldn't bring herself to look up. Too many 'what if's surrounded the situation and none of them were good. Still, when had that ever stopped her?
'But this isn't me that would be in trouble,' she told herself. 'It's not just about me this time.'
It was true enough that she was always reading ahead of her teacher's lessons and truer still that she would put to practice those things she had only read and not been formally taught. What did it matter if she attempted magic beyond her current level so long as she did it far away from the village? That left only one person to be harmed in the event something went terribly wrong and if Delwin had a problem with it then he shouldn't waste her time. This time, though, all those 'what if's had nothing to do with her and while she may have a complete disregard for her own safety she was not so uncaring when it came to others.
'Alright, I can't just stay here forever panting like a dog. On the count of three.'
Closing her eyes tightly she began the mental count, slowly sounding the numbers off in her own head until finally she reached three and as she lifted her head off the ground her eyes opened. For a brief moment all she could see was her own hair dropped like a curtain over her eyes but as her back straightened the curtain fell away and then she screamed. Rather, she attempted to scream but the sound became choked before it even left her throat leaving her with just a tiny wheeze while her eyes widened to saucer-like proportions as she took in the horror of the scene before her.
The troupe wagons were still there in the same semi-circle shape that she'd always seen them with their bright paints dulled from the lack of sun shining upon them. Normally the Crows would be situated in a similar fashion, all of them circled about the fire they kept in the camp's center as they told stories and jokes or sang, perhaps even danced, and it could be said that they were arranged in their usual circle but there was no laughter in them that evening, not even a spark of life. One by one her eyes scanned over each body that she could make out in the firelight putting names to faces; Efron, Gannet, sweet Alouette, and Palila. They were all there but they were all gone.
Choking back another sob she fell forward onto her hands and gagged again as she felt bile rising in her throat. This was not happening, could not be happening. Nothing she saw was real, it was all just an illusion but another look at the scene dispelled any lingering hopes she had and left her retching where she was on her hands and knees. All she could think as she sat there emptying the contents of her stomach was why? Why would someone do something like this to them, to anyone?
She sobbed again as she sat back on her knees once more, tugging her skirts back away from the vile mess she'd made and grabbing for the edge of her cloak to dab at her mouth. Why had this happened? The Crows were good people if a bit overly gregarious by most people's standards and had done no harm to anyone. No harm that she knew of at least but even so what could they have done that warranted the slaughter that was before her? There was no other word to describe the scene, nothing at all in her simple or extended vocabulary that could properly describe the state the troupe had been reduced to.
After several moments of turning the same questions over and over in her mind she finally forced herself to her feet. Stepping over her own mess she began to move forward cautiously, wary of any strange sounds or movement. She had no idea how long ago the massacre had transpired or if whomever had caused it was still around and though she was a mage there was still only one of her to combat what had decimated an entire troupe of men and women. There was also the possibility of survivors though the closer she got to the scene the less likely it seemed that was true as previously unidentified shapes now had their own names to go with them.
"Oh Tern, Circe..."
Her voice was barely a whisper but it pierced the silence like an arrow and though it was her own voice the sound of it made her jump. She stood there, wide-eyed and ready run, listening to her heart beat before she finally relaxed. Despite the gravity of everything she wanted to laugh at herself for her foolishness-honestly, afraid of her own voice-but a movement out of the corner of her eye startled her into stillness once more.
Slowly she turned her head, so slow, as if she expected moving faster would cause whatever she saw to become some sort of night horror made real. Wasn't that how all those stories went? You saw something out of the corner of your eye and if you tried to catch it, it instead caught you? However those stories went she let out a soft cry of relief as she turned enough to realize that it was not a monster sitting by the fire but someone she knew.
There was the Crow Prince sitting at his usual place by the fire and staring unblinking into the flames, his expression startlingly blank with no sign of any sort of life on his face. Gone was his almost constant sly smirk and instead his mouth was drawn into a small, thin line while his eyes had gone completely dark with no hint of their usual sparkle. Though he was alive-he had to be alive, he had just moved hadn't he?-the way he sat as though he was merely existing made him seem just as dead as those scattered around him. At the very least their blood was a testament to the fact that they had once lived whereas the Prince looked as if he was nothing more than an eerie statue and had always been that way.
She stayed silent, watching him and waiting, but he did not move. It was as if he were frozen and perhaps he was. Perhaps whatever had slaughtered the rest had cast a spell on him; but why just him? Why would he be the only one left alive? That question led her down an unsettling path in her thoughts but before she could say anything the Prince blinked then slowly turned towards her as if he had just realized she was there.
"Sylvie? Is that you?"
Her heart clenched when she heard his voice call out to her, always so powerful and commanding but now so weak and unsure. With small, careful steps she began to move towards him taking care not to trample or trip over any of her friends lying on the ground. She wanted to call out to him, to demand an answer to what had happened here but her voice would no longer work. Instead of words all she could form was a whimper but she still moved forward in an attempt to reach him.
The closer she got to the Prince the more distinct his features became and her heart dropped to her stomach as she took stock of him. His black hair was matted and looked sticky in the firelight and his face was smeared with blood which, she realized as she continued looking him over, wasn't that much different from the rest of him. She also noted that he was cradling a head-still attached to a body, thank Helan-in his hands which elicited a gasp from her. Had he done this? Had the Prince really turned on his people and butchered them so mercilessly?
"It is you," he said, his voice still small.
He was looking directly at her now, taking her in just the same as she was doing to him. Just as he was smeared and stained so was she but she looked far more innocent. Her blouse and skirt were covered in dirt and lightly torn around the edges where the brambles had surely caught her if those scratches on her face where any sure sign. No, there was not a hint of blood on her except, perhaps, for the bottoms of her shoes but she could hardly be blamed for that. Nearly the whole clearing had been painted with blood and it would be a surprise if they had remained unsoiled. Then there was her hair, long and blond and usually so straight but now it was all tangled and hanging in snarls. In light of the current situation was it wrong of him to think that even in her disarray she was still beautiful?
A laugh bubbled up in his chest but he swallowed it before it could escape. No, now was not the time because he was a man who once he started laughing found it so very hard to stop. Not that he found any of this amusing, no not at all. In fact he was as far removed from amused as a man could ever be at this moment but his own question had caught him by surprise. Glancing down at the head he had cradled in his lap he smiled softly, a mirror to the peaceful smile left on the dead man's face. Had he known all along? Of course he had, he was his best friend, his brother, and his father; he was the one who had taught him all he knew. Now he was gone.
"You know, he was alive," he said as he looked back up at Sylvie who still gazed upon him with horror, though he hardly noticed. "I mean, they all were alive at one point in time but when I came back Vireo was the only one with breath still in him. Isn't that amazing? He's always been so strong."
As the Prince looked down to smile fondly at the man who had been his greatest friend Sylvie let out the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. When he came back? Thank God, thank merciful Helan that it wasn't him! He couldn't have done something like this, not to the people who were like his family and now she felt ashamed for the thought even crossing her mind. Yet, even if he hadn't done it where had he been that had allowed him to be spared? It wasn't like the Prince to hide like a coward when his people were in danger.
"An old friend came calling," he replied, as if sensing her question. He gave a wan smile as she jumped and stared at him wide-eyed which told him he was indeed correct in his assumptions on her curiosity. "I'm not sure how he knew where we were but it doesn't matter, not now." His smile faded at that and his mouth became set in the same thin line it had been before. "We went towards the lake for a little chat, reminisced about old times and then, well, he tried to kill me. Obviously that didn't go over so well for him but apparently I wasn't his only target and he wasn't the only one who had come calling."
His eyes were no longer on Vireo now, nor were they on her, but instead surveying the clearing he had begun to call home. It was a silly notion, thinking a little piece of nature to be his home especially since home was where your family was. It didn't matter if they were your blood relations, distant or not, or friends you had come to value a great deal. Now his real home was gone, their blood spilled onto the very foundations of what he had been calling his home. His home, his family, had been murdered.
Suddenly his eyes went wide and that laugh that he had swallowed down before bubbled up once again. His reaction was sudden and fierce which startled poor Sylvie who almost tripped over someone's arm but he couldn't look up, couldn't reach out to her. Instead he let go of Vireo's head, letting the body slump to the ground, then wrapped his arms around his chest tightly. No, no she was worried enough and there was no more reason to bother dear Sylvie with his foolishness. But he couldn't help it.
The laughter didn't come all at once like a rushing tide but instead it began as a trickle, like a babbling brook. Soft and quiet, slow though not quite steady but soon the little brook fed into a stream which then fed into a river full of white rapids where a waterfall surely waited at the end. That was the sound of his laughter, a white roar of noise that teetered on the edge of insanity and terrified any within range to hear it. He wanted to stop, tried so hard to stop but, ever the jester, he could not cease his laughter. Surely Sylvie had run off in fright by now and perhaps that was all for the better; no one else could die for having associated with him. He was proven wrong, however, as a pair of soft, warm arms wrapped around him and he was pulled back into an embrace.
Slowly, silently, she had moved forward as the Prince was gripped by hysteria until she could put her arms about him and no sooner had she done so than his laughter began to ebb. She laid her head on top of his not caring about the blood that was now staining her cheek and clothing. There was nothing she could say that would make any of this better and for all the power that a mage possessed not even they could bring the dead back to life. All she could do was hold him and let him know that there was someone who was still here, someone who cared, and hope that it would be enough.
"Oh the irony!" he cried as his laughter finally subsided enough to allow him the breath to speak. There was a chuckle or two still being sprinkled here and there but he no longer had the energy to maintain his hysterics which was all well and good as he had a lot of graves to dig that night. Reaching up with one hand he wiped away the tears that had been steadily streaming down his face as he had laughed before turning his head so that he might get a better look at Sylvie who, bless her, still held him as if she were his anchor; an observation that wasn't too far off the mark at this point. He gave her a lopsided grin as she looked at him questioningly, no doubt wondering just what it was he found so ironic. "Sylvie, you know what they call a band of crows don't you?"
His grin widened as she shook her head tentatively then let out another chuckle as her eyes widened in recognition. For reasons she had never thought to ask about the Prince and his traveling troupe were known as the Crows and he their Crow Prince. Looking around once more at the massacre she felt a small grin of her own tugging on the corners of her mouth which seemed to amuse him all the more.
"Yes, exactly. Isn't it so very ironic? Truly? Why, it's enough to make a poet eat his hat and burn all of his works! A murder of Crows..."