“How many histories does Morgad have?” The riddle went, “The city bereft of the sun. How many histories does the dark city have?” “A thousand histories and none.”
It’s a riddle that brings to mind my incident with Mammie Maria.
The rumors had already spread through the darkness of Morgad that the leader of the gang called the Sorrowful Guild (who ruled the streets of Gutter Row) had a power-knife slipped between her ribs.
My own gang: the Murder of Crows had heard such whispers, “Mammie Maria is dead.” People gossiped, “The Black Wolf gang left their tower and cut her down, they say. With the Sorrowful in disarray, there’s one less gang to contend with.”
So we waited in the Elysium District, whose streets I ruled, for the Sorrowful Guild to seek our aid; For the Murder of Crows and the Sorrowful Guild had always been friends and allies.
We resided in a great hall at the time when they came to us at last. I and my Murder of Crows heard clack-clack-clack of a visitor’s cane as she navigated the darkness.
Canes were common in Morgad. It was how we moved about the city we could not see–for you gain a keen ear in the darkness. With nothing to see, you learn the subtleties of sound—the pitch of a cane against marble sounds different from a strike against granite. Everything you touch or strike is translated into your own little world.
Me and my gang listened to the visitor’s progression. Her cane-clacks were as swift as her footfalls were slow, as she made her progression through my hall.
But the visitor’s footfall stopped in the middle of my hall, and she groaned like a tree before falling. Then she spoke, toothless gums smacking. “Lordess Isora, I bring news,” the visitor said with the voice of a rusty old woman and the suckling sound of wet gums. “You’ve heard how the Black Wolves killed Mammie Maria in Gutter Row?”
“Well it appears I’ve some unfinished business, for I’ve risen as a Wraith.”
Some of my Crows snickered at that, but I could not deny there was precedent. A Crow named Davion once received a sharpwand through his ribs. But he rose as a Wraith for days until I took vengeance on his killer and his body finally turned cold.
I snapped at my Murder of Crows to be silent and turned my attention to the woman. “You are Mammie Maria?” I asked.
“That is so.”
“And you rose as a Wraith?” It was a Crow named Azoc who asked the question.
“She stinks like the dead,” another Crow, said.
“And it’s not unlikely the Black Wolves would attempt to revenge their gang,” Mammie Maria added. “And the Black Wolves are like to come for each of you.” I heard her spittle spatter the ground.
“We will avenge you,” I said, rising. “The Black Wolves cannot hide in the tower forever. An eye for an eye, as they say.”
“I’d like that,” Mammie Maria said, “Take a few Crows we’ll go to the Black Wolves.”
The band of Black Wolves reside in the tallest tower in the Foul District. Because of their fortification, reprisal from other gangs is next to impossible. And in the darkness of Morgad, underestimating the strength of their tower could prove to be fatal.
I felt the gate, poking my hand through careful of the smell of rust.
I heard a crunch of boots on stone and cane clacking around the corner. I reached for my sharpwand only to hear the distinct voice of Azoc’s thrice-broken nose. “I just finished checking. There are no guards here. Perhaps we can find a way in if we go around?”
“And try to get through the barbican without a safe-conduct?” Mammie Maria said, “They’d send Kur himself!”
I shuddered at the thought of facing Kur, the Lord of the Black Wolves.
One of my Crows rattled the gate, wordlessly. “Why would the guardsmen leave?” my Crow asked.
Before anyone could answer, there came the clack-clack-clack of canes navigating through the darkness.
“Someone’s coming,” my Crows were whispering. “Isora, what do we do?”
“Do you hear that?” Mammie Maria broke in.
“That thumping. Not their canes, not their boots. The thump, like a walking stick.”
“They hits the ground heavier–with a faint rattle, too.” Retcha said. I myself wouldn’t have heard it if I wasn’t listening for it.
“They’re pikes.” I said.
“Guardsmen?” another Crow suggested.
“Too many for that,” Mammie Maria said. “There are a dozen of them at least.”
“Perhaps one of them even has a key to the gate,” I suggested. “Get back,” I said, crowding my Crows. “Get back and be silent. Nobody move!”
The footsteps grew louder, until one of them shrieked—unless that was the gate. “Where are the guards?” One of them asked.
“They’ve been killed,” another Black Wolf growled. “By the thrice-damned Sorrowful Guild.”
Before anyone could stop him, Azoc darted through. He had a distinct run and the flutter of his cloak was deeper than most.
Someone cursed, and then with a growl there was another pair of boots following his rhythm. But Azoc had always been fleet.
His cane clacked against the world. He had one of the keenest ears in my gang—his footfalls stopped for a moment and I worried he’d been cut down. But there was a thump and his footfalls returned. He had only hurdled against an obstruction.
“What are you waiting for?” I said, “Let’s go!” I drew my sharpwand and followed Azoc past the gate.
I heard metal clash against metal and clacked my cane, ringing, on the gate, and then entered the yard of the band of Black Wolves.
There came a grinding sound and then a smash. Far off in the yard, a slab of stone had fallen. There was silence, save for the vvmmm sound I’d heard only in tales.
The power-knife glowed where the stone had fallen, yet not bright enough to pierce Morgad’s darkness. It gave off an acrid smell as it hummed. The Black Wolf growled sounding like his power-knife. “What brigands are invading my tower?” It was the voice of the Lord of the Black Wolves: Lord Kur. “Dispose of them!”
A slsshing sound came, and one of my Crows cried and then came the smack against the ground
I struck my cane about me, dashing along the unfamiliar yard. There were shouts and grunts of lethal maneuvers amidst the darkness. I could not find the combat and I rushed to join the fray.
And then the yard was no longer beneath my feet.
I suppose I hadn’t focused enough on the path ahead. I was counting on Black Wolves ambushing me from the side that I hadn’t noticed someone in front of me. I collided full on with a Black Wolf and then the ground rushed up to greet me.
The Black Wolf was solid and his power-knife hummed. But I focused on the sound of his breathing. It was dim enough to determine he wasn’t looking at me.
Another Black Wolf shouted through the darkness. It was a woman’s voice, rough like the crunch of glass underfoot. “What was that?”
“Somebody ran into me!” the Black Wolf shouted. “Gone now, whoever they were.”
I lay still on the ground, not even daring to breathe.
“This is the Mammie’s doing, I know it. You must tell them the truth or there will be war on the streets.”
“My Wolves will be upon me if they discover I failed. I would rather keep my head off a spike.”
“They will know soon, in any case. The Mammie has sent agents to your yard!”
“I know that, Lieutenant.” He was much nearer now, so I didn’t dare make a noise. Thankfully, not daring to even breathe becomes quite easily when the breath has been driven from your lungs. I managed to roll quiet enough without being heard through the din. Then I tripped and almost fell, and stifled a cry before it could pass my lips. I’d almost fallen into a ditch. I felt through the darkness until my hands found a stone slab. I crawled out of the ditch and hid behind it. From there I listened for them again.
I heard two pairs of boots and canes clacking down the way.
The woman spoke then, not two steps away from the stone where I crouched. “Hold them off, Wolves,” she shouted.
But I heard the hum of the Lord Kur’s with the power-knife and watched it change hands. “Take it, Lieutenant,” he said.
“I’ve never used one, Lord Kur,” she protested.
“Take it, you may need it. Get out of here, now. You can still deny that you knew of my failure.”
I heard the hiss of steel running along a leather holster. I realized he’d drawn his sharpwand, then.
I heard a sharpwand whistling through the air and then and then another—both, presumably, from the two who had approached with Lord Kur.
The Lord of Black Wolves made an “Urk,” sound and then spoke. “Two against one. I don’t stand much of a chance, eh?”
“I’m sorry,” one of his opponents said.
“I have to say, your Mammie’s killing ritual is more than a little tedious.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
I heard the rest in an instant. Lord Kur did not reply. I heard the quick, precise whistle of his sharpwand moving back and forth as if it were ticking in the air.
“Fight together and we’ll have him,” one of them said. His voice cracked mid-sentence and I realized these two were just boys out to avenge their Mammie.
But their steps came irregular—almost hesitantly. I heard a sharpwand whistle through the air. Someone smacked the ground and then there was a clash of steel. There was a shout and then both shuffled against the grass, away from each other.
“Let’s hope you fare better than your brother,” Lord Kur growled.
There was another clash, then two, then three. Then Lord Kur gave a short, sharp shout, and then fumped into the ditch.
His opponent spoke in the voice of a rusty old woman. “My brother? I have no brother. Only children.”
I can’t say why I did what I did next. After all, the Murder of Crows had sworn their sharpwands to the Sorrowful Guild for generations. Perhaps it was the talk of failure regarding Mammie Maria, or maybe it was Lord Kur’s willingness to die to protect that woman—his Lieutenant. It felt precious to me. Even as I did it, I leapt out from behind the stone and raised my own blade half pretending that it would strike Lord Kur through the heart.
But his simple stumble changed all my intentions.
So as Mammie Maria whistled her sharpwand back, I grasped the hilt almost by reflex and found myself kicking and struggling and striking.
Mammie Maria fought with youth and I began to wonder how old she was, truly. “You can’t kill a Wraith!” She’d grunted. “My business is unfinished.”
But all I could think of was what Lord Kur had said. If the others discovered his failure, his head would be on a spike.
I decided that I would ensure that he didn’t fail.
“Then this shouldn’t bother you!” Quite suddenly it was over. I held my sharpwand, now bloody. Mammie Maria, beneath me, wasn’t moving or breathing.
I heard Lord Kur grunt. His sharpwand hissed back into his holster. “Who are you?”
I turned, the din of battle was dying down. “Crows! Stand down!”
Lord Kur spoke, then: “Black Wolves, lay down your arms.” And then, quieter, to me: “You belong to the Murder of Crows?”
“I am their Lordess, Isora.” I said, “And I’m sorry.”
“Here.” He dragged my arm toward him and put something in my palm. A disk—no, a coin, small and smooth and greased, almost flat.
I listened to Lord Kur walk away, clutching the coin the whole way.
I liked to think that we invent our symbols. But after that, I understood that our symbols invent us and bend us to their will. I did not know that then—rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
I knew nothing when I dropped the coin into my pocket. I had no idea what I would tell the Murder of Mammie Maria—that she’d lied about her status as a Wraith? That she’d used us? I couldn’t let the darkness keep my knowledge shrouded, too.
It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have strengthened the rule of my gang: the Murder of Crows.