A MURDER OF CROWS
by Debra Birdwell Winkler
The morning was bright and sunny, an unusually warm day for Halloween. I was on the way to work in a long, white sparkly dress, carrying a crown to match, when two children called me a princess. I smiled and waved as I left the bus.
Halloween was too dark and dreary for me. But it was my birthday, so I always dressed as a happy character rather than a witch or goblin. This was a joyful day and not an evil one, for me. I was still unmarried which my grandmother considered a travesty. After numerous heartbreaks, I now accepted there was no Mr. Right out there for me.
I walked towards work in the sunlight enjoying the warmth of the late October day. Ordinarily, I would have driven my car. However, a couple of weeks ago, my “boyfriend,” Fabio, had stolen my car and my life savings.
Ah, dreamy Fabio like on the TV commercials. Long luscious blond hair. Fabulously luscious brown eyes. Muscular luscious body. Deep voice with a luscious foreign accent. Luscious lover extraordinaire. Did I say he was luscious?
Oh, my gosh, I should have known better. I can’t believe that I fell for the trickster for almost six months. Can you believe that? And then the police told me that Fabio wasn’t even his name. Fingerprints showed he was Luca Lupai from Romania, a criminal they’d been chasing for months. They said I was lucky. He had sold his last roommate to a drug lord in South America.
Lucky me. At least he didn’t take my family’s two-hundred-fifty-year-old home with dark green clapboard with a wrap-around porch, tall windows on both floors, and gables with images of crows at the top of each one. The heavy wooden front door had an ornate carved dragon the color of my emerald green eyes encased in a very thick door frame. I loved my house and always felt safe and secure behind that door.
A shiver ran down my spine as I turned the corner towards my office building. Dark clouds were rolling in from the ocean beyond, covering the sun. The street was quite gloomy (if one believed in ghosts, the words creepy or spooky would come to mind). A cold, damp breeze began to blow around me and I wished I had brought my windbreaker instead of just my light sweater. To warm myself, I rubbed my hands up and down my arms.
I rounded the corner and saw a bizarre sight, a crow feasting on a dead rat. The crow’s slick black feathers glistened in the diminishing light. The rat, dark gray and unappealing.
I stopped immediately and looked around. I realized I was all alone on a street that was normally quite busy during the work week.
I looked back down at the crow pecking away at his victim. Although I wasn’t really afraid, I backed away. Since reading Poe’s The Raven, I haven’t liked ravens and crows. But rats? Rats are my most feared animals. I just thought it strange to see a crow devouring a rat on a downtown street corner on the way to work. The disgusting sight of the crow and rat convinced me to give the crow a wide berth to finish his meal. So, I quickly crossed the street.
Usually, I didn’t walk the other side of the street because an empty lot full of rubble and debris occupied that side. I had taken but a few steps and there, just inside the high weed overgrowth bordering the sidewalk, was another crow feasting on a dead rat. Movement drew my attention a few feet further into the weeds to a third crow eating the remains of a rat. There seemed to be more movement in the tall weeds beyond.
I walked a bit faster and came to the end of the length of cars parked near the crosswalk. There was a crow with a bloody beak pecking out the eyes of a huge rat lying lifeless on the cobblestones. His shiny black feathers looked almost velvety and shimmered in the diminishing light. He looked up at me as if to challenge me with his beady eyes.
“No, no,” I said and backed away. “I’ve already had my breakfast.”
I felt his eyes follow me as I hurried away. I dared not look back, thinking he would see me as a threat, and I certainly didn’t want him pecking out my eyes.
I hurried to the corner and, up and down the cross street, I observed crows poking at dead rats. This time, I shook with fear at this apocalyptic-like scene. The breeze had turned into a whistling wind blowing between the buildings, whipping at my clothes, while the sky got darker and darker.
I ran kitty-cornered across the street to my building and threw open the red door under the sign:
MARCHANT & COMPANY
I leaned against the automatic door, trying to close it faster. The security area where everyone checked in was dark. I reached over to turn on the light, but nothing happened. I flicked the switch several times, still nothing. I decided there was a power outage to add to the eeriness of what was happening outside.
I reached in my purse and flipped on my small flashlight, which illuminated a thin light in the room. No one was at the security check-in station, which was very unusual. Mr. Marchant, my boss, was adamant about security with valuable cargo stored here.
I headed up the stairs with flashlight in hand and entered the second-floor area full of empty desks. No one was there. Not the receptionist, not the clerks, not the mail carrier, not the salespeople. I slowly made my way across the empty room and headed for my office which was just outside Mr. Marchant’s.
I shut the door behind me, dropping my purse and crown on my desk. I tried my lamp, but no light. I sat in my chair and took a deep breath. Everything was dark and silent. It felt very peculiar and unnatural. I was quite cold, alone, and getting really nervous.
Then, I heard a whisper of a movement. More like a flutter of a sound. A moment later a flash of light and a man appeared before me. I jumped with fright.
He was a dark handsome man about six feet tall with black curly hair hanging down over his forehead and onto his wide shoulders. A long nose graced the center of his face with a full mouth and high cheekbones. His emerald, green eyes were wide open under bushy black eyebrows which normally might appear threatening, but his smile was soft and genuine. His clothes were formal. An elegant white shirt with a green emerald clasp at the top, black trousers, and a long black coat with a high collar.
“Good evening, Ziara,” he said in a charismatic, soothing voice with a slight European accent I couldn’t place.
I was surprised that he knew me. I was sure I would have remembered that face and the sound of his voice.
“How do you know me?” I asked with a high, thin wobble to my voice. Perhaps I should have asked, Who are you? Why are you here? What’s happening to everything around me?
“You are Ziara Daniel,” he said and casually sat on the corner of my desk. “You come from a long line of, shall we say, warriors.”
“Me? From a long line of warriors?” I blurted out.
“Yes. I am surprised that you were never told.”
“Nope. But then, my parents were killed in a car accident when I was eight and they didn’t tell me much.”
“I’ll tell you now.”
“No, first tell me who you are and what’s going on.”
I looked out my windows and it was pitch dark outside. It was so cold that my teeth began to chatter.
“We don’t have much time, Ziara.”
The handsome stranger snapped his fingers and produced a hooded cloak of black satin. “Stand up,” he said. “Let me wrap this around you to keep you warm.”
Without warning, I felt uneasy and very nauseous.
He walked over to me and draped the cloak about me. I unexpectedly felt warm and protected.
Before he could answer, I doubled over with severe stomach pain.
“Don’t speak,” he warned as he pulled the hood low over my face and sat me in my chair. “Quiet now!”
All of a sudden, my boss appeared before the handsome man accompanied by several men dressed in dark caftans and turbans. It was like they walked through the wall.
“Where is she?” Mr. Marchant demanded. He was dressed in a Middle Eastern white jeweled turban headdress and a long flowing red brocade robe. In his hand, he held a large, curved sword like he was someone from one of the Arabian Nights’ stories.
“Who?” the man asked.
“Miss Daniel isn’t here, as you can see.”
“Where did she go?” Mr. Marchant pointed to my desk. “That’s her purse.”
“I’m as stymied as you.”
“Listen here, you Prince of Nothingness, she’s mine.”
“It looks to me like you’ll have to wait for the next cycle to complete your cataclysmic ritual, Murad. The heavens are about to open.”
“Luca sold her to me, and you know that I need her blood to start the ceremony which will give me this world.”
“Luca was a liar and a thief. He gave her to me. I’m surprised that you believed anything he told you.”
Mr. Marchant slashed the air menacingly with his sword. The handsome man didn’t flinch.
“I will find her, Vlad, and destroy you when I do.”
Mr. Marchant turned away and with another swing of his sword, he sliced a portal right into the wall and his entourage followed him through.
My heart was beating so fast I was afraid that it would jump out of my chest. The man placed his finger over his lips and then wrapped his arms about me.
“Close your eyes,” he said and turned us around. A few moments later, he let go of me and pulled the hood off my head. I opened my eyes to find we were a block away.
I looked around and there was no sign of anyone or anything. No crows. No rats. No people. Just the wind whipping around me, fluttering my black cloak. The sun was just beginning to rise in the east with ribbons of purples and blues along the horizon.
“What just happened?” I asked bewildered.
“Halloween’s over,” Vlad said.
“Time moves quickly when we’re engaged in saving the world.”
“We saved the world? In a space of just a few minutes?”
“Hours. That took hours, my dear.”
“Yes.” He turned and walked away. “Come on.”
I reluctantly caught up to him. “Why couldn’t Mr. Marchand see me? Is this a cloak of invisibility?”
“It’s a rather old cloak,” he said. “It belonged to your mother. Murad doesn’t know you have the invisibility cloak. He thinks it was destroyed with her.”
“My mother? But my parents died in a car accident.”
We walked on in silence for a few minutes. I was confused, didn’t understand what was going on, and obeying the commands of a man I didn’t even know.
The man stopped and said, as if he could read my mind, “My name is Vlad. It is my duty to protect you from the Dark Powers.”
“What Dark Powers? Why?”
“Because you are the last of the warrior princesses.”
“I’m no more a warrior princess than the man in the moon.”
“You became one last night on your 31st birthday,” he said. “Take this.”
Vlad snapped his fingers and a long, medieval sword appeared in his hand. It was three feet long and five inches wide with a golden dragon engraved in the handle. Without notice, he threw it to me and, to my amazement, I caught it. Without a second’s hesitation, I whipped it around like I was defending myself and ended my proficient exhibition with the point touching his chest. He didn’t move.
“How did I do that?” I asked, slapping the sword to my side.
“You are a warrior princess.”
“Great. And from where do I get this ability to wield such a sword?”
“It became your sword last night and you’ve always had the ability.”
He nodded. “You and I are the only ones who can hold back the Realm of Darkness from overpowering the Realm of Light.”
“Wait, you’re saying that my boss is a member of this…this Realm of Darkness?”
“Correct. He calls himself, ‘Murad the Magnificent, Supreme Ruler of the Realm of Darkness. Each October 31st they attempt to open a door into the Realm of Light and conquer it. This year, they almost succeeded but you and I were able to stop them. Twenty-three years ago, your parents stopped them when their crash sealed the ripple between the worlds.”
“Really? No way. They died in a car accident.”
Vlad stopped. “Do you think we could allow the truth to come out about the two realms? People of this world would not be able to handle that.”
I was unsure what to believe. “So, you’re saying that each year on Halloween, there is some kind of struggle to take over the Realm of Light.”
Vlad nodded his head and began walking again.
“So, you represent the Realm of Light?”
“You and I.”
“Just the two of us?”
“We are all that’s left, unfortunately, Murad killed the others,” he said sadly. “And you’ve got a lot to learn before next year.” Suddenly, a crow landed on his shoulder, and I jumped. “This is Zemu. He’s a friend. He and his family have been protecting you since you were born.”
“The crows on your roof are real. They are like watch dogs taking care of you.”
“Zemu?” I looked closely at the velvety black feathers of the bird on Vlad’s shoulder and realized he was the crow with the bloody beak I saw before. “The rats?”
“Murad sent them to find you. Zemu and his murder of crows saved you.”
“Murder of crows?”
“A group of crows is called a murder. It’s an ancient name created by people afraid of them. Some believe crows know the future. I know they can.”
“I sensed something was wrong, but Zemu knew the rats were coming to assault you. So, he gathered his family and attacked the army of rats Murad sent.”
“Thank you,” I said to Zemu.
“So, what do we do now?” I asked.
“We must prepare for next Halloween. As I said, Zemu, apex predator that he is, will alert us. He and his murder will be watching, waiting. They’ll protect us, especially you.”
“Wait, you have the same emerald, green eyes as me,” I said.
He was nonchalant in his answer. “We’re from the same family line.”
“Murad called you ‘prince.’ So, you’re a prince?”
“I am Vlad XIII, Prince of Wallechia, Order of the Dragon. It doesn’t matter, though, because Wallechia is part of Romania now. But it’s just a title with a huge responsibility. Sometimes, I’m called Vlad Dracul. Dracul means Dragon.”
I drew back from him. “As in Vlad Dracula? The one the story Dracula is based on?”
“My grandmother told me the story of Vlad Dracula who murdered thousands.”
“Our ancestor got a bad rap. German, Turk, and Russian folktales view Vlad as an evil man. He destroyed his enemies trying to save Wallechia from invaders. But history is told by the victors.”
Suddenly, as we began walking through River Park, Zemu flew off Vlad’s shoulder and cawed out long, sharp-sounding whistles. In less than a minute, Zemu’s murder of crows darkened the sky and swooped down into bushes beyond us. Vlad hurriedly covered me with my hood and wrapped his arms about me. Within moments I opened my eyes, and we were on the porch of my house.
I was silent for a moment and then asked, “What happened in the park?
“Zemu saw more rats cutting across the grass. He and his murder took care of them while I whisked you away.”
I took in a deep breath. “Will it be this way all year?”
“My dear Ziara, I’m here. Zemu’s here. We’ll protect you. You have a special gift as a warrior princess. It’s your blood that Murad needs to conquer the Realm of Light.”
I said nothing, just listened.
“You have a lot to learn before next Halloween. You already know when Murad and his cronies are coming.”
“That sensation of nausea I felt before the evil guys entered my office.”
“Yes,” Vlad said.
“I feel it now.” I doubled over with a horrid pain in my stomach. A few moments later, Mr. Marchant materialized on the sidewalk.
“Ah, Miss Daniel,” he said sweetly. “You need to come with me.”
“You’re too late,” Vlad said as he pulled me close to him.
Mr. Marchant hissed. “I’ll have you, Princess Ziara. One day you’ll be mine.” Then, he was gone.
“I don’t think so,” Vlad remarked.
“I’m not so sure that the two of us and a murder of crows can save the world.”
“Unfortunately, we have no choice, Ziara.” Vlad swung his arm across my shoulders. “We are the only winning team available. Forces of Light over the Powers of Darkness!”
He saluted the birds now perching on the gables above us as Zemu settled again on Vlad’s shoulder.
The sun was rising brightly. It was November the first and the world was back to normal. According to my new partner, we have a year to learn how the two of us and a murder of crows were going to save the world next Halloween.