Chapter III

Wards and Warnings

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The housekeeper grabbed us both by our collars before I could even blink, pulling us away from the books and back out the door. She proceeded to drag us through the dusty halls back to our rooms, muttering under her breath the entire time. Whatever else I might say about Mrs. Thompson, the fact remains that she had a truly respectable vocabulary of swears, and a lot more strength in her short, wrinkly arms than you’d expect.

‘Up and poking into everything already, and it not barely dawn!’ she screeched, as she shoved us into our sitting room and finally released us from her claws. ‘Perhaps we were not completely clear on the rules: you are not to be out of your beds past ten o’clock and you are certainly not to be wandering about the house at all hours of the night!’ Conveniently enough, she left out the part where she definitely had not mentioned those rules before. ‘Mind you, if I do catch you at it again – ’ she slashed one of her gnarled fingers across her throat.

Of course, that part, she had mentioned before, though I rather hoped throat-slashing wasn’t one of her usual punishments. ‘Since you’re up, you might as well get dressed,’ she croaked. ‘You’ll be having lunch with Doctor Crowe today, and it’s in your best interests to be presentable.’

And with that, she left, slamming the door behind her.

‘Taking good care of us, aren’t they?’ said William.

At one point, one of the maids slipped in to put breakfast on the table, and at another point, William had finished off the entire plate, assuming I wasn’t hungry because I could barely keep my eyes open. I practiced my defences and let myself drift, while William took up his candle-making experiments where he’d left off. And then, of course, at some other, third point, the Housekeeper barged in again, and since we hadn’t even begun to get dressed, she continued yelling at us as if she hadn’t paused, and let me tell you, lacing up the bodice of a mourning dress is no easy task when there’s a toad-faced Housekeeper yelling at you for not being able to tie knots behind your back instead of just tying the knots for you.

Finally, we were ready. I finished lacing up my shoes, and William pulled on his jacket. The Housekeeper ushered us once more through the dusty house and we came, at last, to the Dining Hall, a huge, draughty space that was smaller than the library (but only just). There was only one table in that Dining Hall – a single, heavy, wooden table, long enough for a dozen chairs to be lined up on either side – and Uncle Edward was sitting at the head of it, already waiting. He stood as we stepped through the doors, beckoning us to sit:

‘Come, come! Don’t be shy.’

There were four places set, but Mother was nowhere to be seen – and so we sat down in awkward silence and began to eat. Eventually, Uncle Edward spoke:

‘I hope your stay has not been too unpleasant thus far?’

There was nothing honest we could say to that without offending him. William took a keen interest in his green beans, picking at the bits of bacon that had been stirred into the sauce, leaving me to make an attempt at being diplomatic, if I dared.

‘Well–’

‘Mrs. Thompson tells me that you have been getting well acquainted with the house – a most fascinating structure, is it not? Even I must admit to knowing little of its full extent.’ He didn’t wait for us to comment before pressing on. ‘But perhaps a little history. You see, the first Master of Ravenscourt was Sir Atreus Crowe, who was granted the lands of the Manor in 1485, after the Battle of Bosworth. He began construction on the house the following year. However, the work was set with ill luck from the start. Less than two months in, several workers were trapped by a collapsed wall. Their bodies were never recovered. Some time later, the head architect was struck down by plague. But still the work continued, until in 1487, two of Sir Atreus’ children disappeared.’

Here he paused, taking a long drink from his water glass, as if washing down his words. ‘No one was quite sure what happened to them,’ he continued, setting down the glass. ‘Some believed they had wandered into the Blackwood, others that they were buried in rubble from the construction, their bones turned to mortar. It was not until the house was completed that their fate came to be known.’ He set down his silverware. ‘For you see, Sir Atreus, upon completion of the house, decided to throw a celebratory dinner. In this very room, he and his guests gathered, sitting around this very table. The appetizers were brought out, then the soups, and finally the main dish. It was said to have been a magnificent feast, and only Sir Atreus refused to partake. But finally, near the end of the main course, he gave in to the urging of his wife and uncovered his plate – and what do you think he found there?’

My stomach had started to churn. There were very few pleasant endings to a story like that.

‘Er… a roast pheasant?’ guessed William.

Uncle Edward shook his head, and gave a small, mirthless laugh. ‘Heads,’ he said, as if it were a punch line. ‘Human heads. Those of his eldest son and his only daughter.’

William put down his silverware, and I didn’t blame him. The plate of roast beef and greens in front of me turned suddenly horrific, bits of bacon like cooked skin. Could you make bacon out of humans? I sincerely hoped I would never actually need to know the answer to that question.

‘Did they ever find out why?’ I asked.

Uncle Edward shrugged. ‘Perhaps someone wanted revenge on Sir Atreus, or perhaps it was the work of a jealous and troubled younger sibling.’ He took another sip of water and met my eyes.’ Or perhaps the children merely ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, it serves to remind us that even the most innocent curiosities can be deadly. Perhaps it is better not to venture into uncharted territories, lest you run into things best left alone.’

At that moment, the door to the Dining Hall creaked open, and Mother poked her head into the hall. I couldn’t help the sigh of relief that escaped me as Uncle Edward stood to greet her, pulling out the chair next to him for her to sit.

‘I do apologize for my tardiness,’ she said as she took her seat. ‘Now, what are we eating?’

To be continued…


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In any case, until next time — Farewell from the Ladies at Ravenscourt.