Authors: Joseph D'Lacey
Tags: #Crowman, #Black Dawn, #post-apocalyptic, #earth magic, #dark fantasy
“…comes the Crowman, people. He walks where there is pestilence. He walks where there is war. He weaves a cloak of blackness for he is the black sunrise of the black dawn. For he is the son of the broken land and the wrathful sky. For where he walks there is destruction and decay, the old world cast down in dust and ashes. For he is judgement made flesh. And you shall perish or be raised up at the touch of his black feathers. And you shall vanish into darkness behind his cloak or be set free by it into the light. The black poppy of Death sprouts in the Crowman’s bootprints. He shall plant a black seed of silence in the earth and none can know what will spring from that seed…”
Prophecy, partial, Black Dawn era scrapbook, Coventry, author unknown
“…the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”
Zitkala-Sa – Lakota Sioux, 1876-1938
“the ravens rise to heaven
a sky of black scimitars to war!
at the beck of morrigan, they come
to drip a bead of death from every beak
by the thousand they scrape the air
screamin caw! caw!
lie down in the earth you men
the time of men is over!
’til only a scarecrow stands
arms stretched out to east and west
stone grey eyes surveyin the fallen
straw lips and fingers twitchin in the wind
and whisprin tis good, tis good…”
Untitled verse, pre-Black Dawn era scrapbook, Ward archive, London, author unrecorded
The war is over but the land remains hushed.
Great tracts of England are as grey and dead as leprous flesh but, here and there, the green of Mother Earth persists; lush pockets of riotous overgrowth murmur with birdsong and the scurrying of small creatures, awakening once more. In some places the fields, ungrazed for years by sheep or cattle, have returned to grassland, occasionally swaying to the touch of the still slumbering wind.
And where the calcified arteries of road and motorway once ran, choked with the noise and fumes of trucks and cars, now those sclerotic highways have been broken by quakes or have vanished into fathomless rifts. Those that remain are entombed by an arch of luxuriant foliage; the pressing in from both sides of the verges and embankments, clutching the tarmac until it ruptures allowing even more growth to sprout though.
The cities are dead. Many have sunk back into the land, absorbed by tremors that turned the earth beneath them to liquid. London is a barely populated ruin. Manchester is a vast lake of shaken soil. All that remains of Birmingham are the tops of its highest buildings. The Ward are falling, the Green Men reclaiming the land day by day.
A Bright Day is coming.
But Mother Earth, she sleeps yet, still feverish after cleansing herself of the sickness that humankind became, not yet trusting that we have remembered her as the giver of all nourishment and substance and the receiver of our remains in death. Nor is there any certainty that such a trust will ever return.
As for the Crowman, I never doubted him. After all, I knew him more intimately than most. One could say I was his progeny, perhaps, for he made me everything that I am. He is here still; his spirit stronger than ever in the land and in the hearts of its people. I prophesied his coming, I told the Green Men he was among them and would lead them into battle. He did all that and more, blessing every soul who loved the land with the chill caress of his black feathers. He walks with all of us.
And what of Gordon Black, the boy whose task it was to seek out the Crowman and reveal him to the world? Did he succeed? Did he fulfil his destiny?
Even though I have glimpsed the future, I cannot say for certain. The prophecies have come to me and I have recorded them, but my spirit will have returned to the wind for many generations before his story truly has its end.
Though Gordon may have overcome every obstacle and though he may have been equal to every task and though, in the finish, he might even have found the Crowman and shown him to the world, what was all that worth without another to keep his story alive? Yes, the people told his tale, but even those who witnessed aspects of it never saw the whole. And you know how people can be when they have a story to tell; their embellishments cloud the truth. Gordon Black needed someone to tell his story plain and true, to keep it alive in the hearts of us all. Only then would his deeds have any meaning. Only in the passing on from one soul to another, in the most accurate telling, could they have a purpose.
It fell to me to be the first chronicler of Gordon Black’s life and mission, to tell it right for the good of all. The Crowman chose me; he made me. To keep him alive in story. Even now, I find it hard to believe that he would choose a man with a black heart, whose ways were those of theft and rape. Me, whose eyes are pitted and white with blindness, whose skin is scarred, whose body is broken, whose fingers are bent and almost useless. I am the first Keeper. Many better souls will follow me but I am proud of my place in all this and I would not change a word of it simply to show myself in a better light.
For all of this, though, for all I’ve been witness to as a whole man and as a blind man with a new way of seeing, I still cannot say whether any of it matters, or if a single word of it has made a difference. For, though the Crowman’s story is already becoming distant in time and his wonders grow all around us, I see there is a child yet to be born who holds all of this in her hands. Somewhere, even now, she walks the Black Feathered Path in the hope of becoming a Keeper. If she is equal to this task, and no simple matter is it, there will be something special about her, something powerful.
The strict codes of the Black Feathered Path will not keep untruths and substitutions from creeping into the Crowman’s history over the passing generations. This young woman might be the one to bring Gordon’s journey of discovery back to the world through the most exact recounting of all, the final telling. Only a woman has the power to do it. If she can complete the path, hers will be the history that ensures our future: The Book of the Crowman.
All this I have seen and yet it has not been my place to know the outcome. I am the first Keeper and I have done everything I can. For good or ill, I have played my part. This much you already know, whether you believe me or not: without the teller there is no tale.
Dirty rain fell on the woman’s paling cheeks and neck, leaving gritty streaks. The heavy droplets pattered into her staring eyes but she barely blinked. A small hole in the front of her throat pulsed with dark upwellings. The blood, diluted by the filthy downpour, pooled behind her head, and her long greying hair became indistinguishable from the bare soil. Her right hand still clutched a longbow, her knuckles yellow with tension as though its curved shaft was keeping her alive.
She’d been on the ground for almost a minute already but the sound of hot lead penetrating flesh and cracking bone remained the loudest sound in Gordon’s head, far louder than the report of the gun it came from. The other four who now crouched around her, all Green Men and Women, were young and inexperienced, not really fighters at all. They’d been breaking up an old wardrobe for firewood in a backstreet of Fulham when the Ward attacked.
The nearest cover was a long-abandoned playground where they’d cowered, only returning fire from behind a concrete play tunnel when the advancing Wardsmen were within range of their bows. The woman’s first arrow had flown true, hitting a Wardsmen in the chest but in almost that same instant, a Ward rifleman had also found his mark. Gordon knew the Ward would regroup and advance first; they were trained. The survivors he’d had fallen in with were not. And though they may have hated the Ward, they feared them more.
Nearest the wounded woman, whose name Gordon still didn’t know, knelt Kieran, looking pale and confused. His hands shook as he reached towards her face. Kieran was the one who’d told Gordon how he’d seen the Crowman flitting through the streets of Fulham late at night, leaving a blessing of black feathers wherever the Green Men sheltered. Kieran was seventeen, the same age as Gordon, and seemed sincere. In other times they might have become friends but Gordon had learned to share as little information with people as he could get away with while he gathered as much intelligence about his objective as possible. Out of habit Gordon hadn’t told Kieran and his crew his real name. Right now he was David Cook.
A bullet hit their cover, blasting chips of concrete into the air and raising a puff of dust. Kieran started back, pulling his hands away. Another bullet slapped into the wet dirt near the wounded woman’s head, spraying Kieran with a mist of earth and blood. They all moved closer to the tunnel, dragging the woman with them. Kieran began to cry.
“Mum? Mum! What do we do now?” The rain in the woman’s eyes had begun to pool and spill like tears. Kieran looked at Gordon. “Why isn’t she waking up, Dave? It’s just a little hole.”
The others pressed their backs to the concrete pipe and tried to shrink as more rifle fire came down on their position. Gordon closed his eyes and pressed a fist to his forehead.
They’ll be coming around the sides any minute. We’ll be slaughtered.
As he had the thought, the firing stopped. A voice called across the open ground between the two parties.
“We know you have Gordon Black with you. Send him out, unarmed, and we’ll let the rest of you go. You all know the alternative.”
“Gordon Black? I’ve heard that name. Isn’t he some kind of psychopath?”
Gordon shrugged, lips downturned.
“I have no idea.” He pulled Kieran closer. “Listen, we’ve got an opportunity here. Who’s the best shot?”
“Me, I guess. But we can’t shoot now. They’re negotiating. It’s not right.”
“They’re not negotiating,” said Gordon. “The Ward never negotiate. Take one of them out, right now, and I’ll make all this go away. Doesn’t matter if you miss. It’ll give me enough time to find cover.”
Kieran shook his head.
“What are you going to do?” He asked. “What
A bullet thumped into the dirt near Gordon’s boot. He drew his knees to his chest.
“Your mum’s dying, Kieran. The Ward are the ones who did it. Just give me a chance.”
Kieran put his face close to Gordon’s.
“If you run away, I’ll find you. And I’ll cut your fucking throat.”
“A second. That’s all I need, Kieran. Please.”
The voice came once more across no-man’s land.
“We know he’s there. Send him out unarmed and you can save yourselves.”
Kieran nocked and an arrow and hauled on the string, drawing the bow into a tight D. The moment he stood from cover, Gordon darted into the open and ran. He heard the awful silence in which he imagined Kieran scanning for a target and sighting it. He never heard the arrow fly, only the several reports of Ward rifles. He glanced back as he exited the playground and saw Kieran crouched once more, a grin on his face. It was then that the scream came, that of a man on the wrong end of a nightshade-dipped arrowhead. With a grim smile, Gordon sprinted freely now, safe in the cover of a high brick wall.
Gordon moved among the Wardsmen like a ripple on dark water. Their focus was the playground, the concrete pipe and the people crouched behind it, so Gordon’s presence, casual and assured but utterly silent, was something they only sensed when the blade of his lock knife parted the skin below their jawbones and severed their windpipes.
Two were already propped against a chunk of fallen masonry, dying from their arrow wounds. They saw him but their comrades-in-arms, immune to their agonies and intent on their prey, ignored their crying and gesturing. Two more fell to their knees clutching their throats in shock and disbelief before the three remaining realised they were under attack. Only one of them carried a rifle and he turned it now on Gordon Black.
With only ten feet between them, the rifleman’s shot from the hip went wide. Frowning, he raised his weapon to the correct position, aimed and fired again. The boy stepped clear even as the Wardsman’s finger closed on the trigger. Then Gordon was upon him, turning his world briefly red then black. One of the two remaining was the unit’s commander, his belt pulled tight on his grey overcoat, hinting at the hungry, wasted flesh beneath. The brimmed hat once worn by Ward agents had been replaced by grey riot helmets. But neither the commander nor his final man carried a firearm – ammunition was a finite resource now. The commander raised instead a long heavy stick made of hickory and his subordinate pulled free a well-oiled and honed machete.
“You agreed to let them go.” Said Gordon.
The unit commander blinked.
“There were… conditions.”
Gordon stood with his legs slightly apart and his arms hanging relaxed at his sides. His right hand was slick and red, his knife dripping. He shrugged.
“They’ve been met.”
“I don’t understand.”
Gordon made a show of impatience.
“Do I have to spell it out? You wanted Gordon Black and you’ve got him.”
He watched the look that passed between the two men. It used to amuse him, this moment, but he couldn’t smile about killing any more. It was too much like a task now, something wrong and unpleasant; something that had to be done nevertheless. They were young, these two. A little older than him, perhaps, but not as experienced. Not by a long way. They’d been sent out to find him. To bring him back. How many like this had there been over the last three years? Gordon couldn’t recall. They wanted to do their duty, to make good on their orders.
You stupid, stupid boys.
The whistle and snick of slim projectiles finding their warm fleshy home caused Gordon to jump back. For a few seconds longer the stunned Wardsmen stood there, taking in the truth as the nightshade crept into their systems, slowly making good on what the arrowheads had begun. Gordon looked into the commander’s eyes for a long time before loping back to the playground.
Gordon found Kieran kneeling at his mother’s side, head hanging, tears dripping from his nose.
“She couldn’t hold on, Dave.”
The others stood back, fidgeting and red-faced. When Gordon looked at them they couldn’t meet his eyes.
He crouched beside Kieran, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Let me look,” he whispered.
When Kieran didn’t respond, Gordon put his knees on the sodden ground and placed his ear to her chest. There was no movement and the rain had already chilled her body. Gordon closed his eyes and heard the distant cawing of a thousand crows. The sounds merged into a roaring hiss and he felt the first globules of Black Light pulsing behind his fingertips.
Kieran’s voice cut through the static in his head. Holding the Black Light back made Gordon’s guts turn over but he managed to stem its flow for a moment.
“What did you do to them?”
Gordon didn’t understand at first. Was Kieran asking about the healings? Did he already know about the Black Light?
“Oh…” Gordon put a fist to his mouth, fighting to keep his gorge from rising. “I… uh… shut them down.”
“How many men?”
“Three. You took the last two.”
“We thought you were going to distract them. Get them to turn their backs so we could get away. How did you kill three armed Wardsmen?”
Black Light swirled and expanded in Gordon’s palms. He swallowed back his nausea. Willed the dark energy away.
“I was lucky.” He began to cough, to choke. “They were new recruits. Didn’t really know what they were about. Does it matter?”
Kieran stood up.
“Yes, mate. It matters. It matters a lot. I don’t think your name’s David Cook.” He jabbed a dirty, blood-caked finger towards Gordon’s face. “I think you’re the one they were looking for. We’ve heard about you – the boy who’s looking for the Crowman. The boy who cuts up Wardsmen wherever he goes. But you got it wrong this time, mate. You lied to us and you got my mother killed.”
Gordon thrust his palms against his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut.
How can I be the enemy to the people I’m trying to help?
He let his hands drop to his sides and raised his head to meet Kieran’s eyes. Even with the fury of his mother’s death still hot in his blood, the boy could not hold his gaze. Gordon allowed the Black Light to come, feeling it bead and swell at his fingertips, letting it drip like venom to the wet ground. Where the spent, dead earth had been the colour of charcoal, the droplets of Black Light brought colour: deep fertile brown and the first stirrings of green growth. Kieran and his crew backed away.
Gordon looked at them, weeping. He sank to his knees.
“Just do one thing for me,” he said. “If you truly are Green Men, if you value this land and believe in her future, never…
… speak of this.”
Gordon let his hands be drawn towards the woman. Anything he could do to lessen the impact of what he was about to do was a bonus. His hands went to her throat, as though he intended to throttle her. The Black Light, gravitating to sickness and death, found its lodestone.
He felt the bullet dislodge from the woman’s cervical vertebrae and travel forwards and out towards his hands. With deft fingers, he removed the mangled lead slug and dropped it to the ground. He returned his hand to her neck and sensed the wound shrinking closed within, the flesh reconnecting, the entry hole sealing.
The woman blinked. She coughed. Her eyes focussed on Gordon, with his hands still clasped at her throat, and she screamed. The scream of the living with no wish to die.
Gordon leapt up and ran, no idea which direction to take and half expecting the whistle of arrows to follow him. He sprinted from the playground and from the ruined park, taking left turns and right turns as haphazardly as he could. It was the healings that brought both Green Men and Ward out looking for him, the rumours of a boy with power. The gift was a threat to his mission. Faces peered from broken windows and shelters in rubble. He knew that everyone who saw him would remember his passing. Anyone who ran among the streets of London now, had something to run from.
“Never again,” he whispered as he fled. “Never again.”
Archibald Skelton regarded the dead Wardsmen in silence for a long time. Three years of pursuing the boy had done little to reduce his cask-like paunch or the amphibious blubber of his face. However, his surviving eye was keener than ever.
Blood had turned the churned brick and masonry of their position black, as though the three men whose throats had been cut had leaked oil. Their faces were stiff and ashen in the permanent gloom that choked the streets of the capital; each expression of horrified acceptance more like studies in stone than true death. The four men with arrow wounds lay collapsed and staring, but all of the fallen reminded Skelton of toy soldiers. Perhaps it was their youth that gave them that aspect, perhaps the casual ease with which they appeared to have been dispatched.
“They were just youngsters,” said Skelton. “We should have sent men with more history. More guile.”
When there was no response, Skelton glanced over at his long-serving partner. The hulk that was Mordaunt Pike might also have been dead for all the colour in his sunken cheeks, for all the movement in his limbs. Even Pike’s eyes were dim and unfocused, waiting for a true threat to rouse the power in his massive hands or a command to fire the resolute circuitry of his mind.
“It was the boy, of course,” continued Skelton in the wheezed tones of a schoolmistress.
At that, there was a stiffening of muscle in Pike’s huge frame, an almost mechanical creak from deep within him. Skelton smirked.
“I wonder how many he’s taken now, Pike,” he said. “How many of our boys have gone down under that dirty little blade of his, do you think?”
Pike straightened, eliciting further groans from the cabling of his joints. Something ignited in his eyes and he seemed to see the final position of the Ward unit, the dead men and the playground beyond, for the first time.
“Sometimes, I think he’s too smart for us,” said Skelton. “Too… strong.”
The machinery of Pike’s body strained beneath his grey trench coat and he turned to face Skelton. Cold rage glowed in his eyes. He was alive once more. He took a step towards his partner, towering over him. Skelton swallowed the wonderful dread in his throat but there was nothing he could do to prevent the hot stiffening at his groin. Pike’s eyes, the headlamps of some killer automaton, blazed with hate.
“Gordon Black’s life will be a short one,” he said in a monotone. “We’re getting closer all the time. And he’ll pay, Skelton. We’ll make him pay. For all of this.”
Skelton’s pulse beat thick and heavy at his neck. He took a white handkerchief from his pocket and patted his forehead. As much as he adored the lethal energy that rolled off Pike when they discussed the boy, the fact was that they were running out of time.
In three years of searching, coming tantalisingly close to capturing the boy so many times, they still didn’t have him. Sometimes, in the small hours, when Pike’s engine was a faint rumble of snores from across the room, Skelton wondered if they were doomed. So many of the cataclysmic prophecies had already come true: the earthquakes and epidemics, the floods and landslides. In those anxious and debilitating insomniac watches, Skelton could almost believe that if they didn’t stop Gordon Black soon, the Crowman’s work would be complete and the Ward would be as extinct as everyone else. By morning, though, such thoughts would always have disappeared to the realms of paranoid fantasy, where they belonged.
One thing Skelton was certain of: once they had Gordon Black, the world would be the Ward’s. Forever.
Taking a deep breath, Skelton reached for Pike’s shoulder, ended up with his waxy, swollen fingers on the bigger man’s biceps. Pike’s eyes watched the contact, the coals of fury still smouldering in his gaze.
Skelton swallowed and spoke.
“Listen, Mordaunt…” For a moment words escaped him. He swallowed again. “You know I feel the same way as you about the boy, about everything. But look around, man. There’s not much world left to save from the Crowman. Look at these youths, their lifeblood joining the torrent of such that Gordon Black has already spilled. Three years, Mordaunt. Three years and we haven’t seen him, haven’t so much as grabbed at his coattails.”
Pike’s slab of a hand, cold and vicelike, removed Skelton’s from his arm. Death crouched in his eyes.
“What are you saying?”
It took all he had but Skelton held his partner’s gaze. He thanked God for love and the strength it gave him. He became formal once again, his partner’s superior – just as he’d always been when they were in uniform.
“We’re going to change our approach, Pike.” And, as Skelton’s heartbeat clattered on, bearing feelings he had no words to express, it came to him what they must do. He took Pike’s arm again, only for a moment. “Walk with me,” he said. “I have an idea.”