He watched from the height of one of the many pillars that lined the hall as Ozma ushered his four daughters out of the family wing of the palace. They were being quiet, and Qrow wondered if this time Ozma was trying to be more or less quiet than the 'original' Ozma had. Once again, Qrow reflected, time travel was hard to keep strait. He was mostly resigned to it at this point, the fact that there seemed to be little he was able to change. The very people he was trying to save continually getting in the way of his attempts to save them, especially from themselves.
Still, this night he had been dreading since at least the day the first of Ozma's daughters had been born. He knew that all four of the girls were destined to die mere minutes from now, and if the pattern held, there may be nothing he could do to change it. If anything would drive him to drink it would be that, the knowledge that four innocent little girls were about to die and there may not be any way to save them. Even so, Qrow was determined to try. For Ozma, and for Ozpin, the man he might one day become who had earned Qrow's loyalty.
Even now he still remembered how happy both Ozma and Salem had been when they had seen their daughter Winter come rushing in to show them her magic. The way they had looked upon her with wonder and at each other with happiness. Especially the little girl's face lit up with amazement at the little balls of light circling above her head as she concentrated on her power. Unfortunately he also remembered the way Salem had later expressed to Ozma that they could simply replace the current iteration of humanity with their own descendants instead of fulfilling the mission that the God of Light had requested of Ozma.
Stilling his desire to shake out his feathers, Qrow fixed his eyes on the far end of the hall. He knew what was coming, he knew that she was there, Salem. Waiting in the shadows under those high arched windows and watching Ozma's attempt to escape the life they had built here. Ozma, just like the first time, hadn't noticed her yet but little Spring was about to.
'Ah, there.' Qrow thought to himself, crouching ready to leap from his hiding place.
"Mommy?" The little girl in the green dress, Spring, called quietly as she looked down the hall to the windows.
Ozma was startled, more fearful than the original, as he spun around and took in the sight of his furious wife. Well, Qrow had warned him of what would happen now. Tried to at least, but as always the 'god' just hadn't wanted Qrow's opinion on the matter. He'd really gotten too overconfident in his little ruse with Salem, Ozma had listened to Qrow less and less over the years as the partners began their war to unite humanity, and though Qrow had kept warning him he had known Ozma would make these same mistakes. After all, Qrow had been trying to change Ozma's path since before he had even met Salem in this timeline and yet here they were, facing the very same obstacle Qrow had seen in Jinn's vision. Qrow wanted to sigh over how futile it all seemed, nothing he'd done having made a difference to history at all.
Instead, Qrow watched as Ozma stepped in front of his daughters; Winter, the crown princess of their kingdom in her blue dress with the golden circlet in her hair. Fall, the second oldest in orange and brown and with the brightest blonde hair, standing too far to her father's left to be protected behind him. Summer in pink and with the longest hair, standing between her oldest and youngest sisters, and little Spring in her green dress and holding her stuffed toy dog while she stared at their enraged mother.
Qrow had warned the king of this moment, but still Ozma stepped in front of the girls and tried to calm Salem, tried to talk her down. As Qrow knew it would, it changed nothing, and Salem threw a violent burst of magic at her own family. Ozma barely blocked it in time, using his cane to channel his own magic into a beam strong enough to block the blast. Qrow lept from his pillar and glided down to the floor, taking human shape for the first time in years as he landed next to Fall and grabbed her, swinging her around behind Ozma with her sisters.
The exchanges continued, but this time there was a small difference, Ozma was drawing Salem's attacks and attention away from the princesses. Edging closer to Salem and down the hall toward the windows and away from the girls. Qrow supposed that was his cue, and set Fall down next to winter, instead grabbing up the littlest princess in green and taking Summer's hand.
"Run as fast as you can and stay close to me!" Qrow ordered the four girls who looked up at him in confusion and fear. It had been decades since he had been in charge of children but hopefully he could handle this, he had to.
Qrow had never shown his transformation to them, nor had Ozma introduced him to them, but Winter had seen her father talking to a black feathered bird before and as crown princess her mind quickly made the connection. She took Fall's hand and started after him almost immediately, the lot of them racing out of the hall as pillars crumbled to the ground with loud thuds and flames erupting on all sides blasting them with waves of heat. Qrow didn't doubt that the fight would end the same this time as it had the first, but if he could get the four original maidens out of the castle and as far from Salem as possible, maybe something would finally change.
Qrow just hoped his luck wouldn't ruin it.
There were guards running everywhere as soon as they left the residence, the captain and his team rushing toward the battle to discover what threatened his King and Queen. As soon as Qrow was spotted with their princesses the guards swarmed them, calling for him to halt and release the girls that he had 'taken prisoner'. With a curse at his luck and knowing that he just didn't have time for this Qrow dropped Summer's hand and pulled Harbinger from his back. The simple swords the guardsmen carried didn't stand up to his self-forged weapon, even after all this time Harbinger was as strong and sharp as the day he had met Ozma. Burdened as he was with the girl Qrow knew that it wasn't his skill that allowed him to knock the guardsmen down and back but that same burden he carried. The guards couldn't risk harming the princess enough to cut him.
Winter was a smart girl, when he had dropped Summer's hand she had taken it up herself and pulled her sisters close behind her. In fact she was even smarter than he'd given her credit for.
"Enough! Guards, this man is a personal friend of my father! He is attempting to take us to safety, away from the battle behind us. Cease your interference and let us pass!" Winter cried out with authority and the guard captain paused with his own sword half swung down toward Qrow's own. Qrow was impressed, she was still young and only just learning about the power she held over the people around her but she was trying to be brave.
Qrow froze just in time to avoid taking off the man's hand, Spring had her head buried in his shoulder but he had been trying for non-lethal blows despite their urgency. She was just a little girl and he hoped that she wouldn't be too scarred by this if they survived.
The guard captain stepped back when he saw that Qrow had stopped as well and then turned his attention to his crown princess. "Princess Winter, can you tell us what enemy we are facing? How have they gotten so deep into the palace?" He asked after a deep bow.
The girl's face froze as she tried to work out what to say, giving orders she could do, working out a believable lie this quickly was still a bit beyond the eight year old girl's skill set.
"Just evacuate the palace! The king and queen can handle the rest." Qrow said roughly, meeting Winter's eyes and jerking his head. They really needed to get moving.
Princess Winter nodded quickly and started after him with her sisters as he shoved through the guards, all staring at him and glancing back at their captain.
Seeing their intent to pass on the guard captain steeled himself to take charge of the situation. "Ah- Princess, surely your safety will be better assured with my men? The king and queen will want you protected by-"
"My father trusts this man and so do I, we are going with him." Princess Winter decided shortly, not a tremble in her voice or a falter in her stride to indicate any hint of doubt in her decision. "Do as he said and evacuate the palace."
Leaving the gaping guards behind Qrow replaced Harbinger at his back and quickened his pace once again, racing down long stone stairways and through heavy wooden doors until they came out onto packed dirt and stone. The courtyard was busy already with frantic palace staff running from the flames and bright blasts of magical energy that shot through the night. None too distant they could see the walls of the palace beginning to fall and Qrow glanced back at the girls to make sure they kept up with him as he crossed the yard to the stables.
It had been years since he had ridden a horse, not since he and Ozma had traveled together before his decision to rescue Salem, but he remembered how saddle and bridle strapped on and got three of the beasts ready. Helping Winter onto one with Fall seated behind her and then climbing onto another with Summer and Spring clutching at his shirt Qrow took the lead from the spare horse and got them all moving before any more guards could stop them.
Their flight was a race, as the once grand palace behind them crumbled into the reaching flames that consumed even the stone and the screams as Salem's wrath turned on her people reached them even miles away. So, Ozma was dead then, in this life anyway. Qrow had hoped that the king would find a way to survive this time, but with Qrow's luck that had never been meant to be. Fair enough then, he had averted the princesses deaths once tonight already, he would just have to keep them safe until he could find Ozma's next life. He'd done it once before and he could do it again, Qrow determined, thinking back to a young farmer approaching him in a bar. The only problem was that Oscar had known where to look for him, and despite years of counseling Ozma and following on his journeys Qrow had spent nearly all of that time as a bird, especially after Ozma had granted his crow form the ability to speak. He doubted that Ozma knew him well enough to guess where to find him, particularly as it was nearly always Qrow who came to Ozma as he traveled.
The horses grew tired before he was ready to halt their progress, but the girls were falling asleep in his arms and he didn't like his chances of catching Fall or Winter if one of them fell off their horse in their exhaustion. Reluctantly, Qrow led the horses off the track and into the woods, there wasn't much in the way of protection here but there was a small hollow bordered by tall rocks on one side and it would give Qrow enough space to maneuver if any Grimm approached them. He would just have to take turns staying awake with Winter, hopefully she could keep her eyes open and wake him if she saw anything dangerous.
Qrow didn't have a map or atlas of the area and it was cold enough in the spot he'd chosen as their safe haven that the girls were shivering, but a fire would be too dangerous, a beacon of light and shade to enemies, trackers and Grimm. He would have given over his cape but at this point it was little more than a ragged mantle. He'd exchanged his button-down shirt and durable jeans long ago, he may not take human form very often anymore but they were too conspicuously different and the times when he needed to be human were usually also times when he needed to blend in.
The girls huddled together to share their warmth, curled around spring in the middle, and Qrow explained to Winter that he would need her to keep watch later for him to get a few hours sleep as well. The girl really was brave, simply nodding with the same determination that she had summoned to deal with the guards blocking their path, and Qrow nodded back in approval before he stepped away and circled their little camp from where the girls were falling asleep to where the horses were tied to graze and get their own rest. He ignored the whispers, sniffles and quiet tears coming from the princesses direction, there wasn't anything he could do to make them feel better about the situation, and they were tired enough that it didn't take long for them to fall asleep.
Qrow settled down into the bole of a tree not too far or close to the girls and watched the darkness around them. First he wanted to get across the sea to the continent that would one day become home to the kingdoms of Vacuo and Vale. Perhaps they could find safe haven there, or even in the land that would become Mistrel as he searched for Ozma's next life. the continent where Atlas would one day stand would be too far after traveling across two more continents, and yet at the same time too close to Salem as the continent of Solitas was in fact a strait shot back to the continent of Unitas where Salem would be waiting in the soon to be dissolved Lacuna kingdom. He needed a remote but defensible place to stash the princesses, perhaps somewhere with a close-knit community that would care enough about four young orphan girls to include them in their protection while he went off to search for Ozma.
Glancing back at the girls he noticed that somewhere along the way little Spring had lost her stuffed dog, and she was even in sleep wringing her hands and searching for it. The clear sign of distress was dangerous, she might be the most likely one to bring the Grimm down on them. Qrow knew that he would need to enter a village and try to purchase supplies sooner rather than later, so perhaps he could find something to replace the dog. In fact he should probably try to find some toy or trinket for all the girls, they could all use cheering up and anything that would keep the Grimm away was a plus.
There should be a town nearby, there were a lot of towns in the prosperous lands directly surrounding the capital of Lacuna. He needed to find clothing for the girls that would blend in, not the bright color coded dresses of expensive fabric that they wore now. Briefly he wondered how much Winter's circlet was worth, but it was too recognizable. Anyway, a small town like the ones he would find nearby wouldn't give him much for it, maybe later he could melt it down or break it apart at least. He would also need to take one of the horses along with him. He didn't have enough money even for food for the girls, so he would have to sell or trade the horse first.
With supplies for travel they would have more options, and finding a safe place for the four children to stay while he searched for their father would become reasonably possible. Qrow sighed, a bit relieved to have sorted that out even if only in theory. He had changed the future, finally, in a way that mattered. The original four maidens survived their fated death, and while he shouldn't be thinking about how useful they could be in combating Salem once they learned how to use the magic they possessed, he couldn't ignore that they would be powerful warriors if they took that path. He knew though that he couldn't reasonably expect them to fight their mother, no matter how much destruction she caused. He could only imagine how he would feel in a similar situation, after all he had never seriously attacked Raven, despite his own sister's many attacks on innocent villages in her time leading their Tribe.
In any case, even if the maidens never fought Salem herself, perhaps their children would, they would have the same magic that their mothers and grandparents had inherited from the first human race. The calculation in his thoughts surprised Qrow and he wondered if this was how Ozpin had felt sometimes, looking so far ahead that he was already planning the next generation's future decades before they were even born. He supposed that he was gaining similar experience to the Ozma reincarnate he had known in the future. After all, Qrow had lived two or three lifetimes now, if he counted by the number of Ozma's hosts he had known. In fact, he was actually older than Ozma as he was now, one whole lifetime ahead of The Great Wizard, The Warrior King and Qrow didn't know weather to laugh or cry at that thought.
He had come back in time to stop Salem before she gained immortality, and then he had hoped to stop her from driving the gods away from Remnant, but now he was faced with the same war he had lived and nearly died for in his first life. Qrow still didn't know of any way to kill this Salem, and he didn't know if Ozma or any of the maidens would be able to find a way but despite everything he couldn't give up on the hope that someday it would be possible.
Finally, Qrow woke Winter, and they traded watches. Qrow returned to his crow form to sleep on a tree branch, arguably far more comfortable than trying to curl up on the hard ground in a human body. As he drifted off to thoughts of the immediate and far flung future Qrow worried that his luck would lead it all astray and resigned himself to carefully watching how high he let his hopes climb. It would all be pointless if a pack of Grimm killed them all in the next few hours.
Ozmin leaned heavily on his scepter and sighed as he looked around the village square. A large and dusty place, Greendell was scarce in people, easily outnumbered by livestock. It had been a long shot, he knew, but he hadn't looked in any of the far southern settlements yet and he had to believe that he would be successful one day. He had to believe that he would find some sign of his daughters eventually.
He had so many regrets already, but his second death, at the hands of his beloved had overcome him. If only Crow had warned him better, or had proof of Salem's lies! Why had Crow only stood by and watched while they declared themselves as gods and started a war? How could he have done so little? Ozmin raged at the memories that filled him, memories that weren't his, but were. Ozma, and that nameless man that had come before Ozmin as Ozma's host, both sharing the space in his mind that had once been his own.
He shook himself out of those thoughts though. No, he couldn't blame the bird, it wasn't Crow's fault that Ozma had refused to listen to his warnings. The harbinger had tried time and time again to change Ozma and Salem's paths, how much more could he have done when the two he was trying to council would not listen to his words? It was unfair of Ozmin to place the blame on the bird, when it was Ozma's own fault that he had even met Salem in the first place.
Ozmin remembered, how Crow had appeared one day along Ozma's travels, how he had become a companion to the warrior. He remembered how Ozma had been fascinated by the bird's ability to take the shape of a man, and how Ozma had gifted the bird with the ability to talk in his avian shape. Ozmin also remembered how the bird had suggested a different quest, a longer trip, anything but the path that would lead Ozma to the castle that imprisoned Salem. Ozma had stopped listening then, insisting that freeing the woman held against her will was the only thing to do, and had gone strait to the kingdom's capital to ensure her freedom. All the while Crow flew behind him, watching and waiting for another chance to change his mind.
Ozmin cursed Ozma, almost daily, for the successive months of growing closer and closer to Salem while Crow took any opportunity they had alone and away from Salem to plead with him for caution all to no avail. During the day he would suggest that Salem go off to find her own adventures, or to build a home in every city, town and village they came across. It seemed that nothing could sway the two from their path.
The hardest part of the memories, everything that he had seen from these past lives, was the uncertain fate of his daughters. They weren't Ozmin's daughters, and their second reincarnate had been shoved so far back in Ozma's mind that even though his body had sired the girls Ozma was truly their father. Even so, he had every memory of their births and smiles and first steps. The way Fall loved to twirl in circles that reminded him of leaves dancing in the autumn wind, the way Spring hated to pick the new flowers because she wanted to see them grow, the way Summer raced outside every day the sun shone and how Winter was so coolly certain that she was ready to learn how her parents ran their prosperous and unified kingdom of Lacuna. Even if he wasn't their father he felt as though he was, and he mourned their uncertain fate.
He had seen Crow sweep in behind him when Ozma had turned to face Salem's destructive rage. Seen him gather up the girls and rush them out of the hall and hopefully away, hopefully far, far away. Ozmin had prayed for years that Crow had gotten them away from the castle, away from the city and Salem's reach, and that the bird had somehow managed to keep them safe over the years. How a bird might have provided for four young girls he wasn't sure, yes the bird could take human form once in a while, but he had never seen Crow as a man for more than a few hours at a time and then only when Ozma had great need of a diversion for whoever his enemies or opponents at the time had been. It had been a common tactic, Crow leading an enemy away from Ozma's then cleared path to whatever goal he had, a prisoner, stolen goods or lawful treasure. Crow had always been quick to return to his natural form though, never seeming comfortable as a human, and Ozmin wasn't sure if there was a reason for it but even the girls might not be enough for the bird to overcome whatever difficulty there was.
All of this was why Ozmin had taken to traveling and searching as soon as he had worked out the boundaries between his own mind and that of the others. If he could only find his daughters he could take care of them himself and take that burden off of the bird. Ozmin had realized somewhere along the way that he wasn't sure if he really considered Crow to be a friend. A traveling companion certainly, perhaps a fellow adventurer though he knew that Crow was primarily driven by his self imposed mission to change the path of history as he knew it, but any more than that was likely damaged by Ozma's disregard of Crows warnings. Likewise, he didn't know Crow's own mind on the matter either, and thus it was difficult to judge exactly how he felt. In spare moments Ozmin would wonder if he and Crow would become friends or if Ozma's disregard and the burden Crow had now carried for him would color their future relationship. He could only hope that Crow was intuitive enough to understand and predict his intentions.
In this vein Ozmin would often wonder at his difficulty in finding any clue. Thinking back though Crow always seemed to find him eventually, so frequently in fact that every time Ozmin looked up and caught sight of a dark-feathered bird he expected it to open its beak and speak in the human tongue with Crows strange, untraceable accent. Looking up and over his shoulders for birds had become a habit during Ozma's travels, and throughout his long search Ozmin had fallen into the habit as well. So much so that when he spotted the bird sitting on a branch across the square he dismissed it after only a second's hopeful attention, sure that once again it was just an ordinary bird.
Suffice it to say, Ozmin was deeply surprised when the bird glided from it's perch and landed on his shoulder. Ozmin started badly, craning his head to try to see the bird, and shockingly it didn't leap away from him nor begin pecking him. Decidedly un-birdlike behavior.
"Crow?" Ozmin asked in shock, barely daring to hope.
The bird cocked its head to one side as it stared at him and then bobbed its head at him as though in answer. Ozmin wasn't sure if this was truly confirmation or if the bird was just thinking birdy thoughts, nonetheless Ozmin took the chance and made his way slowly and carefully from the village square to a less traveled road, hope growing in his heart as the bird remained on his shoulder with talons gripping tightly through his green and brown shawl instead of taking startled flight.
As soon as they were reasonably alone and unobserved, though Ozmin wasn't acquainted enough with his surroundings to be certain that no one would use this road any time soon, the bird on his shoulder fulfilled all his hopes.
"Good to see ya' Oz." That familiar rough drawl spoke just beside his right ear.
"Crow!" Ozmin sighed in relief at the confirmation, eyes closing briefly as he leaned one hand against a nearby wall to steady himself. Finally, he could finally learn the fate of his daughters. He straitened up again, sending a glance aside to the bird, it wasn't the easiest way to conduct a conversation but Crow didn't seem to be planning to move any time soon.
"My-" He was about to say daughters but suddenly he was unsure of himself, or perhaps the safety of their conversation. "The girls." He said instead, Crow would understand that at least.
"Safe nearby. Got any business in town or we can head there now?" Crow answered promptly and the renewed surge of relief at actually hearing the words that his daughters were safe and here and he could see them soon flooded not only Ozmin himself but also the hearts and minds of the two other souls he shared his body with now. Their daughters were alive, their mother hadn't hurt them.
A shaky exhalation of breath and Ozmin nodded to himself. "I have no business, I have been searching for all of you everywhere I have traveled these last years. I was beginning to lose hope." He admitted to his companion, and it was true, no matter how determined he was to find them he had felt more and more hopeless with every settlement that had failed to present his daughters.
"Ah. Back to the square then, and follow the westward road out of town, there's a path that branches off it on the right. Follow it and we'll get there before too long." Crow directed, simple instructions and no more chatter that Ozmin was unwilling to commit himself to before he could see the girls with his own eyes. Once he knew that they were alright he would be ready to speak of anything, just so long as he could finally see them.
The quiet walk out of the light bustle of the village gave Ozmin time to breathe and collect himself. He hadn't ever thought much beyond seeing them again, there were so many words that he should probably have prepared but even now his mind was blank as he watched the trees and greenery rustling around them. Crow's talons in his shoulder a comforting familiarity amid the unfamiliar woods.
They followed the rough dirt track that branched off from the village road for almost a mile before they came within sight of a home. There was a young woman seated outside of the cottage at a table covered in rocks of many bright colors. She had long blonde hair pulled back in a loose tail that spilled in waves to the small of her back over her plain dress of brown fabric which she wore with a stained orange apron tied over. As they approached Crow let out a caw that made Ozmin wince and the woman looked up from her work with the rocks in surprise to take in the sight of Ozmin approaching with Crow yet perched on his shoulder.
The young woman stood up quickly but stayed where she was. She was watching them in surprise as they drew nearer, unsure what to make of the stranger no doubt, but Ozmin would recognize her anywhere. Fall was beautiful and he could see his second daughter, the little girl he remembered, so clearly in her features. The coloring, and her eyes, it was obvious to him who she was and he had to fight not to race toward her. Better not to startle her though, he didn't know what Crow might have told the girls about him. She wouldn't like being embraced by a stranger, he was sure.
As they reached her he stopped, staring at her while Crow hopped from his shoulder and drifted over to Fall's. She looked comfortable with him, clearly she had adapted to her protector's curious magical form over the years.
"Well, everyone should be here, assuming no one snuck off without telling me." Crow said with a nudge of his head at Fall's chin for her attention.
She blinked, perhaps surprised that Crow was speaking in front of someone who to her was a stranger, but she nodded to answer him anyway. "Yes the others are inside, or maybe out back, but no one said anything about leaving." She turned, seemingly reluctant to break eye contact with him, but nevertheless lead the way to the door of her home.
Ozmin followed mutely, entering the small cottage and glancing around. It was sparse, but everything was clean and well ordered. Not the castle that his girls had been born into but material riches weren't what made a good life. He wondered briefly where they all slept, there were only two doors leading out of the main room that functioned as an entirely open space. The kitchen on one side and a dining table with five chairs in the middle while a fireplace stood in the wall on the left with a worn rug spread before it.
One of the doors opened as he was inspecting the small bookshelf that held only a handful of worn tomes and Ozmin turned to see three young women entering through what appeared to be another external door. The sunlight shone off of hair ranging from white to gold but it also gleamed on the edges of blades. Ozmin blinked as he took in the sight of three young women, in trousers and thick clothing, as they carried in their swords and knives and hung them in their places along the walls. There was a bow and quiver of arrows already hanging in its own place among the weapons and Ozmin wondered if it belonged to Fall.
Despite the incongruity of what he was seeing Ozmin drank in the sight of Winter in pale blue clothing that was well tended but wearing thin in the elbows and knees, Summer with a wide smile and long hair braided tightly swinging against the edges of her pink shirt, and Spring with her short hair held back with a green and yellow headband. They were sharing a laugh at some previously told joke as they entered the cottage, but they startled when they caught sight of him in their home.
"Good! So everyone is here, and welcome back Oz!" Crow announced, loudly, to the silent room from where he now stood in the center of the table.
The girls were staring at him in shock and uncertainty. "Oz?" Winter asked, testing the name as she stepped toward him.
Ozmin swallowed dryly. "Ozmin, although in another life my name was Ozma." He told her honestly.
"Father!" Spring called, and before he knew it she was in his arms, hugging him tightly.
She recognized him, and of course, of course Crow would have told them. He would have explained so that they would know him if they found him before Crow did, because Crow wouldn't keep such a thing a secret from four scared orphaned girls. Ozmin should have known that, he should have known Crow would be preparing his daughters to understand the world and protect themselves from their mother and the war that Crow had fought in his first lifetime. They wouldn't be able to stay in this cottage forever, the four girls with their true magic were destined to become a legend and Ozmin was sure that someday when the Grimm stretched across the continent of Sanus his daughters would be magnificent huntresses.
Ozmin shook himself free of his thoughts and soon enough he was surrounded, with gold and smiles and he embraced them all with tears in his eyes certain that the future would be brighter now, just as Crow had intended.