Special Interlude V: The Crow and the Earl
“Tristan is dead,” Constance announced as she entered the study.
Percy continued to stare at the painting before him, a portrait of his father, Earl Ethan Hawthorne, staring heroically into the distance with a crow upon his shoulder and the earl’s signet ring upon his right hand.
“Percy, did you hear me,” Constance continued impatiently.
“I heard you, Mother,” he replied neutrally, eyes focused upon his father’s missing signet ring. “I simply don’t understand why you feel you needed to inform me.” He turned slowly to face her with a cynical smile. “It’s not as if you allowed me any friends.”
“Percy,” Constance sighed as she approached him and took his hand. “You will be free to do as you wish in two years when you are twenty. I understand you are feeling frustrated, but you don’t have to remain in the Manor all day. You have the garden to walk in and the grounds to ride your horse.”
She smiled brightly, but it did not hide the concern behind her eyes.
“How did the Crown Prince die?” Percy asked casually.
Constance’s face tensed as she withdrew her hand from his cheek. “I thought you didn’t care about that?”
“Now that you have told me, I’ve grown curious,” Percy replied as he turned his gaze back to the portrait. “After all, the poor Crown Prince was surrounded by death growing up. First his mother, Queen Catalina, then my father, and then Queen Rosalinda—”
“The prince had an unfortunate fate, that is all,” Constance interrupted briskly.
“That isn’t right, Mother,” Percy replied as he turned his winter-grey eyes—eyes that he had inherited from his father—towards her once more.
“Sorry?” Constance blinked and frowned.
“A Crown Prince is still a Crown Prince, even in death,” Percy reminded her patiently. “Nicholas will inherit the title, of course, but that does not remove it from his dead brother.”
“Oh—of course.” Constance cleared her throat as her gaze drifted to the portrait and away. “In either case, there will be a brief mourning period, but that need not concern you.”
“There won’t be a funeral?” Percy asked with sharp curiosity.
“No,” Constance answered with a hint of frustration. “They were unable to recover his body, so King Henry decided against a funeral. Just a public mourning period of two days—”
“Only two?” Percy laughed. “One would think the King had grown to despise his favorite son.”
“Perhaps he had cause to do so,” Constance replied with a hint of impatience as she turned towards the office door. “I have other matters to attend to.” She paused in the doorway to look back at him. “Do go outside Percy, you are looking paler than usual. Some sunlight will do you good.”
“As you wish, Mother,” Percy bowed politely and raised his head when she had gone.
He stared for a moment at nothing in particular, then opened his hand to reveal the crumpled note he had read just before his mother entered the room.
A pureblood fire witch decimated Wolfthorn Forest, most likely the Emperor. No sign of Prince Tristan. All of the Red Wolf Army have fallen.
‘Have you finally left me too, old friend?’
Percy sighed and lifted his gaze to the crow perched upon the lantern which hung from the ceiling. He held up his hand and whistled softly. The blackbird hopped down to land upon his finger and fluttered its wings as Percy moved towards the partially cracked window.
He raised the window frame and released the bird to return to the Coven of Crows, who would continue to watch the border to see if the Emperor made any further movement.
“King Henri is a fool,” Percy hissed and shut the window. “The Dowager no doubt pushed him to this decision—but how blind does a man have to be to overlook the danger he may have placed us all in.”
He grabbed his jacket from the desk chair, descended the stairs two at a time, and swept past Russell, who waited below with a raincoat and hat. “No need,” Percy replied tersely. “I’ll just be in the garden.”
The crunch of pebbles below and the scent of approaching autumn filled Percy’s senses as he crossed his hands behind his back and walked in a composed manner towards the garden. He knew without looking back that his mother’s servants were watching him from the windows above.
‘She didn’t bring up my investigation into Father’s murder. No doubt she thinks Tristan’s death will discourage me from looking further.’ He let out an abrupt laugh as he turned the corner and entered the garden. ‘Without Tristan, I have no one inside the royal palace who can dig into the past. The Dowager already killed every spy I slipped in, including that historian, Lord Koresh. Even Mercy is limited by her position as Abbess.’
His feet led him towards the water fountain of their own accord, and Percy glared down at his dark reflection among the lily petals.
‘I will find another way. Once I have proof—’ he spun and sank onto the edge of the fountain. ‘Even if I find proof—who will I condemn? The Dowager? The King?’ He raised his gaze to the Manor’s windows just in time to see a maid duck out of sight. ‘My Mother?’
Percy dipped his left hand into the fountain and then pressed his cold, damp fingers against the back of his neck. ‘I still don’t want to believe she had a hand in Father’s death, no matter what Mercy says.’
He bowed his head between his knees and let his left hand drop to his lap. “Veles, help me untangle this web of deceit and lies. Give me a sign? How am I to reclaim what is mine? How can I unify the covens behind me when I cannot even condemn my father’s killers?”
A black crow landed upon the garden path before him with a flurry of wings. Percy flinched and scowled at the bird. It was not the same crow he had released from his room earlier, nor did it have a clasp on its leg for carrying messages. Instead, the crow’s legs appeared to be painted red, and even its dark black eyes seemed to hold a crimson gleam.
A strange sensation overcame him as Percy leaned against his hand and examined the bird. “Are you a servant of Veles?” he asked with a hint of mockery. “Does your Master even listen to prayers anymore?”
The wind picked up with sudden ferocity as leaves, stems, and berries from the hedge bushes flung about the garden and tore through the flower beds. The crow remained unmoving through the storm, but its eyes seemed to pool with crimson red as they stared without blinking at Percy.
‘It cannot be.’
“So even the Hawthorne’s hatchling and future earl dares to defy my existence? What am I to do when such a weak and arrogant witch wishes to rule over my covens?”
An invisible grip bound itself around Percy’s throat. He clasped his neck and stumbled down to his knees, unable to breathe.
“I have blessed the Hawthorne family for generations, but you would let such a treacherous woman cut down your father’s house and lineage just because she is your mother?”
The choking grip faded away, and air returned to Percy’s lungs as he hastily bowed his head to the crow.
“Forgive me—Veles—God of Air.”
“You have ambition, young Earl. The same ambition your father once had, but without my blessing, you lack the power to fulfill his hopes for you.”
“That is all I desire, to claim what is mine,” Percy replied passionately. “And to uncover those who dared to plot and murder my father.”
A dark chuckle filled the garden.
“I have interfered too much already, yet she will not survive without someone capable by her side.”
Percy blinked and hesitantly raised his head. “Veles, to whom do you refer?”
“Even though I have led her to you—you have yet to realize.” The crow cawed mockingly and flapped its wings as it rose into the air. “Come. She is close by.”
Percy hastily climbed to his feet and sucked in a quick breath before he was forced to jog after the bird, who flew silently against the breeze over the garden towards the back pastures.
Beyond his mother’s prized garden lay the servant’s houses surrounded by ancient oaks. Once through the trees, the fenced pastures filled his view. Percy had learned horseback riding here, after the farmers harvested their wheat.
He raised a hand to his brow as he stared across the familiar sight of golden crops ready for harvest once more. The crow hovered across the bountiful plane, then turned and glided towards the willows which surrounded the Hawthorne Pond.
Percy sighed but trudged through the field until he found a dirt path that indirectly led him towards the willows around which the crow circled like a vulture.
He had worked up a sweat by the time he reached the willows. The skies above darkened with the promise of rain. Percy scowled as he thought of the raincoat Russell had offered him, but he wasn’t about to anger a god over a little bit of rain.
‘What is it Veles brought me all the way here to see?’
Percy stepped through the swaying branches of the willows, that teased and kissed his cheek as if welcoming his return. He swallowed a lump in his throat and stared at the notches in the willow’s bark where his father had measure Percy’s growth each summer the Earl brought his son to the pond to fish. Three notches lined the tree’s trunk, the first when Percy was three-years-old, the last when he turned five—the same year the Earl was found dead in his carriage after being ambushed by thugs.
Percy turned his gaze to the embankment that rested within the canopy of the willow. His father’s chair was gone, but he could still remember the slope of the Earl’s back as he knelt over the two sailboats placed in the water.
“Now remember, Percy, you don’t have to force the wind, merely guide the direction you wish it to move.” The Earl placed his hands gently upon the five-year-old Percy’s shoulders. “Remember the words. Fustibus Saxisque.”
“Fustibus Saxisque,” Percy repeated.
“Now concentrate. Remember, the words only help you focus the magic. Your emotions give it strength, while your mind controls the intent.”
Percy smiled with sad fondness. Through the branches of the willow, he could see the marker they had once raced their boat towards. Percy had lost seven races in a row before winning the eight and cheering his little heart out as the Earl bowed humbly in defeat.
‘Of course, Father let me win—I know that now—but he was not the sort of man to give others what they did not deserve.’
“When you’re bigger, we will race real sailboats on the Serpentine River,” the Earl joked as he hoisted Percy upon his shoulders to return to the Manor.
Percy clenched his fists and turned to leave—but stopped as he caught a movement of colors through the willow’s branches. He raised his hand and carefully parted the curtain of leaves. Beyond them, beneath another willow tree, he could make out a young girl dancing in a light blue dress with a rainbow-colored shawl draped around her shoulders and arms.
The crow above him cawed softly and nodded its head in silent confirmation before it too silently stared at the dancing girl. As she turned towards them, with her flushed cheeks and ash-brown hair waving about her shoulders, Percy recognized Lady Maura, his mother’s pet and protégée.
‘What is she doing here? Isn’t she supposed to be taking lessons with Mother? What sort of dance is that?’
He couldn’t deny the gracefulness with which she moved, how light and weightless she appeared as she spun and leaped from the ground, her hand gliding elegantly through the willows leaves as if she were dancing with them to some strange music.
Inadvertently Percy took a step closer but caught himself as he carefully closed the willow’s branches, leaving just enough space to watch Maura’s dance. She was barefoot, not that the embankment offered much in the way of thorny stones, but it was most unbecoming of a lady.
‘I suppose that’s the half-blood in her,’ Percy mused with a sigh. ‘Honestly, I don’t know why she tries so hard to please the Countess.’
“She’ll never rise above the status of her birth,” he muttered aloud.
The crow cawed loudly in the branches above him, and Percy stiffened as Maura, alerted by the sudden noise, stopped her dance. He almost tripped over the willow’s roots as he scrambled to hide behind the tree. Percy pressed his shoulder against the bark as he held his breath and listened to his foolish heart hammer away in his chest.
‘Really, what am I doing in this ridiculous situation?’
The answer, of course, lay with the mischievous deity above, whose red eyes peered down at Percy with tangible amusement.
Percy knocked his head against the tree in silent defeat then stilled as he listened. He could hear every leaf in the willow tree around him, the ripple of the wind against the pond’s surface, the splash of a toad dropping into the muddy water below before it swam deeper into the pond. Beyond the willow, he heard the sound of Maura’s footsteps, no longer dancing but walking along the warm grass of the embankment down towards the pond.
Intrigued, Percy peered around the tree and parted the willow branches.
Maura waded in the shallows of the pond with her dress pulled up around her calves. Her back was towards him as she leisurely wandered along the embankment.
Percy scowled silently. He had never walked in this pond, but he assumed it must be filthy given all the mud and slippery creatures that lived in it. And yet, someone groomed to be a lady was happily splashing her toes among the toads and muck. He shuddered and glanced quizzically at the crow above.
“Why have you brought me here?”
“To unveil your eyes.”
“My eyes?” Percy sighed. ‘Of course, a god’s answer would be cryptic.’
“I have kept her masked from the world for as long as I could, but the longer I linger near her, the more the other gods will suspect.”
Percy’s ears pricked up at the mention of the other immortals. “I don’t understand,” Percy lamented. “What’s so special about a half-blood?”
“Watch and witness.”
Beneath the crow’s unnerving blood-red eyes, Percy could only nod obediently and return to observing Maura as the rain began to fall. It sprinkled against the surface of the pond as Maura paused and stared, not at the sudden shower that darkened the fabric of her blue dress, but at something below the water’s surface. She dropped her skirts and knelt to search the mud intently with both hands.
“What is she—”
Maura cried triumphantly as she straightened and held one muddy hand aloft. Percy could not make out the object before Maura rinsed it and her hands in the pond, then returned to the embankment. She retrieved her shawl from under the willow and wrapped it around herself before she slid what must have been a ring onto each of her fingers before finally settling it upon her thumb.
Percy might have laughed at her childish behavior—if he had not recognized the man’s signet ring with its large black diamond. He had last seen that signet ring on the Earl’s hand before he left to report to the palace—a trip from which he never returned after being ambushed by a gang of thugs.
“The assassins must have stolen his ring along with all his other valuables,” Constance had told him when Percy thought to ask about the ring after his father’s funeral.
‘I believed her—yet—why would assassins throw father’s ring into the pond?’ Percy sucked in a breath.
“Do you think it a coincidence that your Mother became the leader of the Aristocratic Party with the King’s blessing and the Dowager’s support so soon after your father died?” Mercy’s cynical voice echoed through his ears.
Percy leaned against the tree as his lungs tightened and an uncomfortable feeling of confirmation curled in his gut. ‘So, it is true.’
After the funeral, many of the Earl’s loyal servants mysteriously vanished from the Estate.
“Because they displeased the Countess,” was Russell’s only explanation when pressed.
The Countess kept Percy locked inside the Manor after the funeral while insisting she would get to the bottom of the Earl’s murder. “This is for your own good, Percy. I would do anything to keep you safe.”
Percy raised his burning gaze to where Maura still studied the signet ring curiously as the rain eased into a drizzle. The breeze picked up, and raindrops from the branches above fell upon Percy’s head and neck. He shivered as he pressed a hand against the tree and stepped around the willow. “I should reclaim what is mine.”
The command rooted Percy in place as the wind circled past him and twisted the willow branches around Maura. The girl watched them with a secretive smile as she extended her arms and twirled once more in a dance.
Percy shivered again and blinked as a cold breath of air evaporated before his eyes. His gaze snapped to Maura, who swayed with and bowed, caught up once more in her strange dance, blissfully unaware of the trail of frost that followed her footsteps upon the grass.
As Maura’s fingers glided among the branches of the willow, the leaves glistened like diamonds as raindrops froze beneath her touch. The rain upon her dress and the hem of her skirt glistened and turned white, and for the briefest moment, Percy glimpsed a crown of frost upon her ash-brown curls.
He exhaled in disbelief as the magic binding his limbs released. “Maura is—an ice witch?”
“Her fate lies on the edge of a blade. She will either perish a half-blood, be burned as a witch, or rise to become Lafeara’s rightful Queen.”
“Queen?” Percy echoed in disbelief. “Then her father—”
“She is the last descendant of the Isbrand bloodline.”
Percy muffled a laugh behind his closed fist. “No wonder you kept her hidden.”
“I have entrusted this knowledge to you, Earl of Hawthorne, so that you might protect her.”
“From the Church?”
“There are many who would wish her dead and many more who would claim her heart—not all of them mortal.”
“Kritanta?” Percy whispered anxiously. “I am not strong enough to defy the goddess of destruction herself.”
“Reclaim your father’s ring. It will unlock the magic that is yours to inherit.”
“Father’s ring?” Percy straightened.
Maura appeared to have realized her mistake. She hurriedly plucked her shoes from beneath the tree and dashed through the frost-covered branches. Maura paused as the leaves closed behind her and attempted to shake the frost from her dress, then stopped as she focused on the ring still upon her thumb. Her expression shifted from panic to mystified as she took off the signet ring and tied it to a willow branch with the dark-blue ribbon from her hair.
“Why is she?” Percy mumbled, confused.
“A suggestion on my part,” the crow answered. “She will forget about the ring by the time she returns to the Manor.”
“You can do that?”
“You dare to underestimate me, witch?”
Percy grimaced and bowed his head. “No, Veles, forgive my insolence.”
The crow chuckled as it evaporated like a dark mist upon the breeze.
“A King does not ask for forgiveness.”
Percy’s heart almost stopped as the god’s meaning became all too clear. ‘If Maura is destined to become Lafeara’s Queen—than the man who claims her heart will naturally become its King.’
He strode towards the frost-covered willow and untangled his father’s signet ring from the royal-blue ribbon. He stared into the black diamond and caressed the runes along its silver band. The magic that hummed within the precious metal brought back the feeling of his father’s presence. That same power tingled and spread like a rush of air throughout his body as Percy slid the ring onto his right hand.
Finally, the artifact that had been passed down through each generation, from Earl to Earl, had returned to him. It was one of two precious heirlooms safeguarded by the Hawthorne name since the day the second Saint executed the Isbrand royal family of Ice Witches—and left no survivors.
‘Or so they thought.’
Percy smiled as he wound the blue ribbon around his fingers and pressed it to his lips.