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The Housekeeper seemed just as pleased as we were. She was pale and bulging, with heavily-lidded eyes, a wide mouth, and very little neck, which rather made her look like the unfortunate result of a misguided prince kissing a toad and turning it into a Housekeeper. As soon as Mother and Uncle Edward had disappeared into the house, she stalked toward a door on the other side of the hall and pulled it open. A dust-dark hallway lay beyond – I’d met closets that looked more inviting.
‘Well?’ said the Housekeeper, her voice a low, rasping croak. ‘Are you coming or not?’
William and I exchanged a look. My first instinct was to turn around, get back in the carriage, and catch the first train back to Caledonia, but that, unfortunately, did not seem like an option. So, with a deep breath, I made my way to the door, William still clinging to my coat. The Housekeeper nearly shoved us through, before slamming the door behind us, and pushing past to take the lead.
The house was a dizzying labyrinth of tight corridors and high-ceilinged galleries, and hall after hall after hall of locked doors. As the housekeeper led us down passages and up stairs and through windowless rooms, the keys at her belt jangling with every step, I tried to keep track of our route, counting rooms and paces and turns, but it was impossible. Past a set of double doors, we turned down a side hall, and at last, the Housekeeper unhooked the keys from her belt, unlocking the door to a small, dreary parlour.
A cloud of dust rose into the air as we entered, and William tried to wave it away – but before I could do much more than glance at the room (all I noticed was that the walls were painted a most disagreeable shade of grey), the Housekeeper spun us both to face her.
‘These are your rooms,’ she said shortly. ‘The main bedroom is through the door on your left, while the second door on the right leads to the other. The maid will bring you dinner in an hour. I hope you’re not picky.’
‘Now, before you get too comfortable,’ continued the Housekeeper, ‘there are some rules you are expected to obey during your stay here. First of all, locked doors are locked for a reason. You are well advised to keep your snotty little noses where they belong.’
Fair enough, I thought.
‘Secondly, though the woods and gardens are free for you to explore, you may not leave the grounds without an adult or express permission. And of course, if you are not back inside before nightfall, the doors will be locked, and you will not be allowed admittance,’ her face broke into a cruel grin. ‘The grounds are rather… unpleasant at night.’
I looked to William, who raised his eyebrows. Neither of us wanted to know what sort of unpleasant she meant.
‘Finally,’ said the Housekeeper. ‘Remember that you are here by the goodwill and charity of Doctor Crowe. If he asks you to do something, you are to do it immediately and without question. Is that clear?’ When neither William nor I responded, the Housekeeper gave a little sniff. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘if you wish to be obstinate, there will be punishments.’
‘What sort of punishments, ma’am?’ asked William.
But the Housekeeper didn’t answer. Instead, she gave us one last heavy-lidded scowl and stepped back into the hall. ‘Welcome to Ravenscourt,’ she said, before slamming the door on us.
Her exit raised another cloud of dust, which set William coughing while I pulled off my boots, shook the water out of my coat, and took a moment to look at the room properly. My first impression hadn’t been wrong: a crumbly fire smouldered in the fireplace, a vase of wilting flowers drooped on the mantle. The warped shadow of iron bars darkened the windows, and the couch and the cushioned chairs had become a feast for moths. I’d never seen a more disagreeable room in my life – up to and including the sitting room of our neighbour, Mrs. Evans, who owned a dozen smelly cats.
Dad would have had choice things to say about all of it. Perhaps he would’ve tried to identify the mould growing on the walls: P. Creeperserus or something like that – or made jokes about the paintings and the strange statues. The Housekeeper would’ve found it impossible to be so sour to him: he would’ve laughed it away, or perhaps even charmed a smile out of her. And Uncle Edward–
I wondered what he would’ve said to Uncle Edward. After all, they were brothers: they’d grown up here together, once. But now I’d never know what they would’ve said to each other, because of course, the only reason we were here at all was because Dad was gone–
He was gone.
It still didn’t feel completely real. Half of me still expected him to walk through the door with a smile and a laugh, saying it had all been a marvellous joke. Part of me even wanted to believe he was here – just waiting behind one of those locked doors.
But of course, that couldn’t be true. He’d left all of this behind long, long ago, and he’d never wanted to think about it again. How Mother could have ever thought of bringing us here, to this unfamiliar house among strangers, I still couldn’t fathom.
‘I hope we won’t be staying very long,’ said William.
‘I guess we’ll have to wait and see.’
Dinner was a sorry plate of cold meat and soggy potatoes, and Mother had tucked a note under one of the forks to let us know that her room was ‘just down the hall’ though she’d conveniently left out exactly which way and exactly which hall. Afterward, I busied myself unpacking our suitcases, and William tried, with little success, to coax the fire back to life – but with our suitcases being so small, the entire thing didn’t take very long, and so I tucked myself into the lumpy sheets of my lumpy bed for lack of anything better to do. The day had made me tired, but I still couldn’t sink into sleep. So I took deep breaths and tried running my defences, Dad’s words echoing in my head:
The First Defence is always with you, but this ring will help you remember it.
The Second Defence is self-control, and you must master your breath to maintain it.
The Third Defence is your heart and your sanctuary. Know how to find it and you will never be deceived for long.
I twisted my ring and counted my breaths and coiled the warmth of those defences into my chest, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t find my way back to my sanctuary: the Third Defence wouldn’t work.
The rain pounded against the windows and the wind howled over the stones and I could hear the hallways creaking. Without my sanctuary, there was no escape from the strange, discomforting darkness of this unfamiliar room, and my mind couldn’t stop questioning what it meant, that the Third Defence wouldn’t work. Was I simply tired – or did it have something to do with the Ward? Or with Dad? Still, I must’ve slept a bit because I dreamed about a woman with ice for eyes and a pale face and somewhere a boy was screaming. But then I opened my eyes, and there was a face hovering above me: white and flickering with a strange, orange glow.
I screamed, and then hit it with my pillow.
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