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Editor’s Note: Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, forthcoming from Saga Press, tells the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who has persisted for centuries, dying and returning to life.
Some stretches of the long slope of flat land between their funny shelters and the lake had been scored in long straight lines, the earth turned out in running heaps like huge molehills—what was that? Some of the beings scratched with sticks at the scored earth, digging for who knew what—but as Dar Oakley’s gang passed over, they looked up to see, making that indicating gesture; then they threw down their stick-things and followed the Crows, as though joining their progress toward the settlement.
It seemed to be empty. The barking beasts, the tenders of fire, the young, nowhere to be seen. Some few who might be elders were on their way together toward something beyond, where now the Crows could see the mass of the settlers were gathered, and from where strange noises were arising. The Crows gathered calling in the high branches of the Oak grove away from the settlement, from where with Crow sight they could discern what was happening, but not why. From away off billwise many new beings of that kind were coming, all in a crowd, an alarming number of them. That noise the Crows had heard was coming from them, a noise they made by clashing together the things they carried, things bright as flames when they caught the sun; they made a high whine with their mouths, or was it with something stuck in their mouths? They came on toward the settlers, who faced them and made the same noises themselves.
On this day, the Crows of the region joined the history of People, and their own history began.
“What is it?” the Crows around Dar Oakley cried. “What are those? What are they doing?”
Dar Oakley didn’t know. “Watch and you’ll see,” he said.
“See what, fledgling?” a Crow near him said.
It was the Vagrant. Dar Oakley’s eye-coverts flashed, but the Vagrant only becked in mock deference at him.
“Say, look now,” he said.
The new ones had come with their own rolling carrier, pulled by a sleek black high-headed animal. It was pulled out before them all, the being carried in it standing tall, bearing nothing but a green branch of Oak. The settlers pulled their own carrier out from amid them, which bore one of their own—it was that white-haired one who couldn’t walk, legs thin as a Deer’s forelegs. He stretched out his hands and began to call toward the newcomers—high, piercing sounds changing rapidly in pitch and tone, as varied as birdsong. Somehow it stilled all those others in their advancing. He reached out toward them and the ones most forward stepped back, as though they feared that his long strong arms could cross the wide space between them and take hold of them.
“We’ll go closer,” Dar Oakley called. He’d never known of a being not a bird who had a song, if a song was what this was. “Let’s go!”
The others complained and hesitated, but they followed, without really knowing why. Everyone on the plain below turned to watch them come over, and the Singer gestured toward them as though to draw them close. They clustered on a high outcrop of bare rock, so near the crowd of beings that the teeth in their mouths could be seen when they opened them wide to yell.
For a long time nothing more happened. The Singer on this side and the one with the Oak branch on the other took turns crying out in long lilting phrases, the sound of the Oak Branch low and rumbling, the Singer high. Far off behind the newcomers, well away from the face-off, were others, were they their females? And children too, and fires smoldering—how long had they all been squatting there? Back at the settlement, children and many females hid behind a high palisade of sticks that surrounded their shelters, a new thing not there before.
There came a huge roar as some very large ones came forth from each side, black hair to their middles and long slasher-cutter things in both hands but none of the trappings and wrappings the others had, their sex visible. They strutted in the wide open space between the two gatherings, loud-hailing and cursing and mocking their opposites like fighting Crows, stamping on the ground like rutting Elk in combat, all the while coming closer and closer. And then something began to happen so hard to understand, so startling, that several Crows arose crying out, to see it better or to flee it. The naked two-legs rushed together, raising and whacking their opposites with the things in their hands. Instantly blood began to flow, actually leaping from the fighters, as all the rest cried out in joy. They cheered and pointed at the Crows aloft, even as their champions clashed together. Then everyone came running, colliding and yelling and beating at others with their weapons.
Weapons. For it was a battle, and the Crows themselves were in and of that battle—a word they’d only later learn to use, a word that would afterward be spoken among them sometimes in exultation, sometimes in reverence (or as close to such a feeling as Crows ever come) because of the change that it brought to their lives, a change never after to be annulled, not for a thousand years, and which would make them rich and populous, feared and honored. On this day, the Crows of the region joined the history of People, and their own history began.
“Well look at that,” the Vagrant said.
In the midst of the tumult one of the big naked ones with a cry had driven his weapon deeply into the other’s gut. The blood spurted just as the Deer’s had done on that winter evening beneath the trees where the Crows roosted. The big newcomer fell to his knees, clutching at the thing stuck in him, but then sprawled headlong and heedless.
“He’s killed,” said Dar Oakley.
Why did they tend to their dead and guard them as they did? Maybe they couldn’t tell that those ones were dead.
It was true. The one from Dar Oakley’s side (as he thought of him) hadn’t just driven the other away, hadn’t defeated or discouraged him, he’d killed him dead where he stood. What were they doing? It was apparent that the new ones had come to take the others’ freehold, and the ones in possession were fighting them off just the way a Crow family would fight off invaders, crying at them and threatening and even tangling with them, the invaders doing the same. But it wasn’t like Crows at all. The defenders fought against the others as against interlopers, but they killed them like prey.
“Look how he’s ripped that one open.”
“I think he wants to tear his head off.”
All day they contested, all against all, till the sun moved to stand over the darkwise hills. More and more went down, blood-covered, dead or nearly dead. The Crows leapt from rock to rock or took to the air to see, unable to guess what would happen next. At last the newcomers began to retreat. Seeing that, the settlers—anyway all those not themselves killed or hampered by wounds or exhaustion—roared all together and ran after them, flourishing the bloodied things they carried, the weapons.
Strangely, Oak Branch and the Singer stood their ground, as they had all along, though their horses shied and cried out and shook the carriers now and then. The fighters of both sides went around them, never touching them.
The settlers didn’t pursue the fleeing ones far, only as far as to be sure—like a mob of Crows pursuing a discouraged Hawk—that they wouldn’t turn back to fight again, and yes they were fleeing in a ragged line back to where their females and their fires were, done with fighting. Oak Branch calmly turned his cart around to follow them, unafraid. From out of the palisaded settlement behind the females and young were coming out, the danger passed.
And Dar Oakley and the Crows looked down on the greatest bounty that any band of eaters of dead flesh had ever seen.
If all his family, and half the flock to which they belonged, were to eat here for days and days, they would never get it all before it spoiled even beyond a Crow’s taste for carrion. A weird feeling of repletion such as he had never felt heaved Dar Oakley’s stomach and passed. He flew high over the battlefield and began to call with all his might: Look, look! Come here where I am! Come now, come quick! He cried it and cried it, and the Crows who’d witnessed the battle cried it, and from the grove where the more timid of the Crows had lurked it was taken up: Come here, come on! Dar Oakley heard it repeated, and he cried it louder.
Over the flock’s range the call was relayed, reaching inward a great distance, one Crow handing it on to others, who handed it on to more: something extraordinary was happening there where the calls came from. Crows not sitting nests began to leave their family freeholds and move toward their neighbors’ that lay in that direction, which they found undefended, because the family there had left too, winging toward the summons; and thus the families’ holdings collapsed one after the other as the Crows joined into a mass, going to the lake and the moorland and the trees around as night fell.
At dawn the following day they were clamoring together in sight of the fields where the dead beings lay, but they didn’t know what to do next. Astonished at the wealth spread out, almost unable to comprehend it, yet still afraid of the living ones, everyone waited for someone else to do something. Go go, they cried, and no one went. Be careful be careful, they called, and We’ll be careful, watch us, the bravest called back as they dodged and hovered over the bounty and away again, no way of knowing how much of it the victors and killers would want for themselves.
But those strange beings, they made no claim to the enemy, they only investigated them, kicked them over. Those who were alive but too hurt to flee they killed outright. Their females went among the dead attackers and—no, didn’t disembowel them or cut them in parts as they had the Deer in winter. They tore from them those trappings neither pelt nor skin, and sometimes stabbed them, dead as they were; they chopped pieces from them, from between their legs, but then only threw them aside as though they had chosen the wrong parts and didn’t want them after all.
“Maybe they won’t eat their own kind,” Dar Oakley said. “A Crow wouldn’t.”
“No,” said the Vagrant. “Never.”
“But a Crow would never kill another Crow.”
“Well,” said the Vagrant. “Hardly ever.”
Dar Oakley could bear no more. What was a skinny nestling, a baby Rabbit even, compared to this? And he was hungry, hungry! Almost without willing it he lifted from the rocks and coasted toward the meat all splayed and red. He cried to the others to follow, not daring to look back and see if they did, but when he settled beside the nearest dead one, there were wings around him. Three, five, more Crows. None of the two-legs threatened them or appeared jealous, indeed some pointed at them and made a wavering cry that seemed to be welcoming. The smell of blood and opened gut in the sun was terrific. Flies had gathered. Keeping an eye out Dar Oakley chanced a bite, a rip of the gashed flesh of one, the fat beneath. Nothing happened, no objection, and he jumped up on the body to get more. Look at the teeth in its mouth, amazing, it took daring to pluck at the soft and swollen tongue.
Now the flock descended, seeing that the early arrivers were not chased off. The timid ones settled and then arose when the weapon-wielders turned their way, but were soon enough partaking, ignoring everything else, meat-drunk, squabbling with friends and foes over bits as though unable to see how much there was. Dar Oakley, gulping and choking, laughed to see it. A Crow would tear off a great gobbet and fly off to hide it beneath the bushes, cache it there for later, and another would follow to catch him at it and steal it for herself—that was always the way of it of course but it made no sense now, just eat till your crop is stuffed.
If a Crow should fall upon or even come near a body that had been one of their own, they’d drive her off with sticks and cries.
There was one curious thing. The People cared not at all that the Crows dug through the bodies of their opponents, but if a Crow should fall upon or even come near a body that had been one of their own, they’d drive her off with sticks and cries. They pulled their own dead together, laid coverings over them, stayed by them as though they weren’t dead at all but still at threat of harm or insult. Crying aloud perhaps to keep Crows off. That was hard to understand, but hardly mattered.
Night fell. Bills bloody and breast-feathers slick with fat the weary Crows headed nest-ward bearing as much as they could carry, or they went to the nearest trees to sleep, too full to fly very far. Through the night fires flared amid the dwellings, and the two-legs could be heard mourning or rejoicing or crying in pain, it was hard to tell which.
Of course they wouldn’t eat their own dead. Ravens didn’t; neither did Wolves. Why not? It was the way they were. But why did these beings drive off others, Crows, who came to eat them? Not from all, only from their own? A Crow would always cry out on a Hawk caught on the dead body of another Crow, whether old friend or old foe, surely. But still that Crow would be eaten, by one being or another, and who could take it amiss?
Dar Oakley pondered.
Why did they tend to their dead and guard them as they did?
Maybe they couldn’t tell that those ones were dead.
Maybe it was their Fate, what they must do because they must, like it or not. It was likely so: yet as when his father had told him of his own fate, Dar Oakley was not reconciled, and did not assent.
Through the next many days Crows went back and forth over the distance to the nests, taking away what they could and coming back for more—filling their nestlings’ small pink maws so full they topped up with meat as flower-cups top up with rain. Even more came as bodies burst open and flesh softened in odorous decay, the way the Crows like it. Among the Crows were Father and the Younger Sister, as eager as the rest.
“You see?” Dar Oakley cried to them between bites. “You see?” Of course they pretended not to hear or notice him, but Dar Oakley didn’t care: he’d known since the first of the two-legs had raised their spears to him that he had discovered a thing that would change their lives, and for the better, and here was that better life. You see? You see?
Light rain fell over the field. Rooks discovered the bounty, following the Crows; a couple of Ravens from the upland forest too, who claimed one carcass for their own and were not disputed. The cherished dead of the settlers had all been carried away into the shelters, the dead of the attackers left in their different attitudes—except when (Dar Oakley was there to witness it) a number of the settlers went among them searching until they found the two big naked ones who had been first in the fight on the other side, and pulled off their heads. It took a while. They stuck the heads on long poles and with noise and gesture carried them to the palisade around their dwellings, where they propped them up, long hair stiff with blood, jaws dropped and eyeballs gone.
Summer grass, then the drifts of leaves and snow, spring floods over the fields, covered the bodies and wore them away till only Jackdaws went on picking at the bones; but those two heads long remained aloft, familiar, bare, staring toward where they had come from.
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