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Fiction

The Counsellor Crow

Covering Note

 Dear Lord Chancellor,

When Cole Franklin, Chief Counsellor of the Royal Court of Ildcrest, decided to resign, he did so by putting on his black boots, black trousers, black tunic, and black ceremonial robes, and walking out into the black night. He walked up to Ashbridge to wait on the tracks for the passing of the midnight freight train. The spot he chose was one hundred feet out from the western bank of the gorge and two hundred feet up from the River Ash. The driver, who knew Ildcrest as thoroughfare and not destination, probably never knew what he hit. It was an inauspicious way for a man of peace to exit this world. Some uncharitable folk have speculated that he jumped before the train arrived, an even more inauspicious end.

For Iwan Brandis, my fellow archivist and civil servant, any end was inauspicious. Cole Franklin was his mentor and friend.

Thus it was with mixed feelings that he took possession of a package from Intercontinental Post four weeks after the incident. It had Franklin’s bold but challenging scribble on the label, something which might have contributed to the lateness of its arrival. Inside the package was a journal. Brandis wasted more precious weeks struggling with feelings of propriety before he read it and realised that it was not, in fact, a personal account, but the careful report of a scientific observer. At last he employed speed, recognising the seriousness of the matter, and composed a presentation for the next meeting of the Zoological Society, a lecture which created such controversy and debate that it was immediately adapted for publication in the Annals of the Zoological Society. Given the nature of the contents, copies have been forwarded to the Journal of the Museum of the History of Warfare, Diplomacy and Heraldry, and the Gazette of the United Councils of the Commonwealth.

Urged by Brandis, I send this additional copy to you, my Lord Chancellor, in every expectation that you will know the appropriate action to take.

As for myself, I have an appointment to see a man about a falcon.

I have the honour to remain, sir,

Your obedient servant,

Linsey Cumberbatch, Court Archivist.

The Counsellor Crow of Ildcrest (Corvus ildcrestensis sapiens)

Description

The Counsellor Crow is a large bird, ranging in height from twenty to twenty-five inches and possessing a wingspan of forty to fifty inches. Some specimens have exceeded this average, inspiring tales of remote, cliff-dwelling birds with five-foot wingspans. The plumage is uniformly black and glossy, but occasional mutations can produce patches of dark brown at the legs and head. Unlike the other corvids of the region, the eyes of the Counsellor Crow show a bright yellow iris. However, due to cross-breeding with Corvus valensis, the Scholar’s Crow (a common pet in neighbouring Ildervale), rare instances of black-eyed variants have also been encountered. Conclusive identification can only be achieved at close range when the distinctive curvature of the lower portion of the beak becomes evident.

History

Crows and ravens are a common feature on the heraldic devices of Ilderia, the ancient kingdom from which the modern-day counterparts Ildcrest, Ildervale, and the failed state New Ilderia (formerly Ilderland) are derived. The very name of the Counsellor Crow originates from the large urban colony which has inhabited Ildcrest’s Halls of Parliament for over three hundred years, giving rise to a number of superstitions and traditions. It is said that they bring luck to the deliberations of the Halls, and that the ceremonial dress of the Counsellors of Parliament is based on their black plumage. It is also said that Ildcrest shall endure for as long as the crows remain at Parliament. The sayings of country folk betray a more sinister side to these birds. Disobedient children are told that unless they mend their ways, the crows will come to pluck out their eyes. A trio of Counsellor Crows sitting on a church spire is said to foretell a death in the village.

This duality in nature likely stems from the former role of the Counsellor Crow. Ilderians of prehistoric times were wont to place their dead on ceremonial platforms to be consumed by the crows and the elements. Only priests or royalty were granted the permanence of a cairn. By the Iron Age, the practice of cremation had become the norm; however, those who fell in battle were treated in the same manner as in days of yore: their bodies reverentially stripped of weapons and gear and arrayed in close-set rows for the crows to feast. The erstwhile battlefield became for a while sacred, with no one allowed to set foot on the newly-hallowed ground, and this separation was enforced by both sides of the conflict. Modern warfare, with its small-group tactics and fast-moving, hard-carapaced technology, eventually rendered this tradition obsolete. As a result, the crow population began to decline in the rural areas, and urban crows adapted to a diet of butcher’s scraps and small animals. There were occasional rumours of attacks on lambs or small children, but if they did occur, they were isolated incidents that were not sufficient to turn Ildcristans against their favoured mascot.

The turning point in the evolution of the Counsellor Crow took place not in Ildcrest, but in neighbouring Ilderland, where a new Prince and a resurgent nobility developed a strongly nationalistic and anti-modernist ideology that called for a return to old values and old ways. Modern technology was banned, foreigners were ousted, and the nobility tried a motley assortment of centuries-old garments, weaponry, and rituals in an attempt to replace a Golden Age that never was with a New Age of their own devising. Naturally, with all the permutations and combinations of available customs, there were disputes, rebellions, and then civil war. The sacred battlefields of Ilderia returned, and the Counsellor Crows fed and grew fat.

Recent Developments

In spite of its geographical proximity, Ildcrest has always remained politically moderate, if somewhat slow to act during the greatest excesses of the New Ilderian regime. Some ascribe this hesitancy to the fact that Ildcrest’s capital was the original seat of ancient Ilderia, and any interference in neighbouring conflicts might have been construed as a bid to seize power. When New Ilderia finally collapsed on its own, Ildcrest stepped in to assume a caretaker role which was largely confined to the repatriation of refugees and the rebuilding of the principality’s shattered system of public services. At no time did the Ildcristan Court show sympathy for the radical policies that had torn New Ilderia apart.

That changed about a decade ago with a relatively innocuous step: the passing of the Act to Restore Honour to Combat, which limited the use of technology and long-range weaponry in warfare. A year later, the Annual Ilderian Games, long on hiatus due to the unrest in the region, were revived. They ran for three years before the Royal Court of Ildcrest made the remarkable proposal to introduce armed contests with edged weapons, both single combat and melee. The Ildervale government reacted first with disbelief, then with dismay, and finally with severe displeasure. A number of diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic exchanges ensued, some disagreements with respect to trade and access to seaports added fuel to the fire, and the result was the initial skirmishes of what is now being called the Second Ilderian War.

Thus far, it has resulted in disruption of the rail service through Ildcrest and the closing of the main port of Ildervale. Ildervale’s military strategists, too long accustomed to having a strong ally and high mountains on their inland border, are finding their naval expertise to be of little help in this war. Eyewitness reports from refugees indicate that once more carrion feasts are being laid out on battlefields for the Counsellor Crows.

My zoological colleagues may be forgiven for wondering at this point whether I am outlining a brief for the Foreign Affairs Club. I ask them to bear with me a moment longer.

The strategy of mimicry, where a predator entices prey by way of a harmless or attractive disguise, is usually achieved by fooling the senses in some way: the floral patterning on the back of the Orchid Spider, the soothing pseudo-pheromones from the Carnivorous Tube Rose, or the repertoire of counterfeit mating calls employed by the Giant Western Shrike. The case of the Counsellor Crow may be the first recorded instance of a predator that mimics not the voice, nor the appearance, nor the scent of its prey, but their thoughts.

The intelligence of the Counsellor Crow has been a matter of debate for some time. The vocabulary of the Scholar’s Crow is well known, and Corvus nauticus, the Sea Crow, is famed for its tool-making abilities, but the Counsellor Crow, unlike its gregarious and semi-domesticated cousins, has provided few opportunities for deeper study. Cole Franklin, Chief Counsellor of Ildcrest, undertook to correct this oversight. By examining the content and mood of Parliamentary debates and the timing and degree of Counsellor Crow infestations, he was able to infer that certain decisions taken within the Halls were radically, even bizarrely different from the result predicted at high-level discussions which had taken place in other locations—but only for legislation which in some way touched on death, warfare, the disposal of animal carcasses, and so on. From this analysis, details of which are available in an auxiliary paper to this Note, he came to the conclusion that the Counsellor Crow has evolved from predator to parasite, and its host is an entire country.

In one respect, he underestimated his enemy. His field was crowd psychology, and he expected the crows, possessing as they do their own highly sophisticated social structures, to be particularly gifted at manipulating the herd mentality of humans. He did not consider that predator and parasite are not mutually exclusive roles, and he forgot their unique talent for making the surreal seem normal and the impossible practical.

They could, for example, convince a man that he could fly.

The final pages of Franklin’s journal contain a rambling discourse on the prevailing winds, the funnelling effect of a narrow gorge, and the probability that a human body, boosted by the velocity of, say, a passing freight train and the lift of a voluminous ceremonial robe, could coast safely down to the riverbank.

This may prove to some that Chief Counsellor Franklin was not a reliable observer, but a tragic figure in the grip of progressive psychosis. Before such a conclusion can be drawn, a number of other factors must be considered.

Keeping a crow or raven as a pet has become the latest fad among both the nobility and nouveau riche of the continent, a practice inspired by ceremonial gifts of birds from diplomats of Ildcrest and Ildervale to the royal houses of the Commonwealth.

There is a proposal to add a clause to the Commonwealth Ban on Nuclear Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction. This clause would require governments to support the promotion of “combat rituals of historical and cultural significance.”

The population of Counsellor Crows is at its highest since records began. There is now a Counsellor Crow for every man, woman and child on the continent, and their territory is no longer limited to Ildcrest.

At the very least, the case of the Counsellor Crow requires that further research be conducted and adequate precautions taken.

Karen Lord

Barbadian author, editor and research consultant Karen Lord is known for her debut novel Redemption in Indigo, which won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the 2012 Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Best Debut), and was longlisted for the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Her second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards. Its sequel, The Galaxy Game, was published in January 2015. She is the editor of the 2016 anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean.