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…


Welcome to Chapter III of A Murder of Crows! If you like what you’ve seen so far, don’t forget to follow us and get email or WPReader updates of new chapters, as soon as they’re published:

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Chapter II

Ravenscourt Manor

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Time is an odd thing. In the days leading up to a funeral, time can drag so slowly that you doubt it’s moving at all, and then, suddenly, there’s no time to even breathe. It starts passing so dizzyingly fast – a flying frenzy of packing and planning and repacking and cleaning and yelling at your little brother because he won’t stop touching your stuff, and more packing, until before you know it, your entire house is stuffed into storage boxes or wrapped under sheets, and all the rooms have been stripped bare. Within a week, our entire tiny house had been clipped, cleared, and cleaned, and we were leaving. Mother piled our scant suitcases on the stoop of the house (‘nothing more than you need,’ she’d said. ‘It’s not as if we won’t be coming back, after all’), and after cutting off the gas lamps, she locked the door, and that was that.

A buggy brought us to the station. We settled into our compartment, and while Mother paged through her worn copy of Wuthering Heights and William amused himself swiping matches from the snack trolley every time it passed, I watched the grey mountains of Caledonia sink outside our windows, turning into the moors and rolling hills of Anglica. Towns raced by in blurs of colour, and clouds grew thick overhead, a storm gathering as we sped towards a place I had never heard of in my life.

‘What’s it like?’ I asked, at last. ‘Ravenscourt?’

Mother paused her reading, looking up to meet my eyes. ‘It’s where your father grew up. It’s where we met.’

I blinked at that. Before this moment, I’d never heard either of my parents talk about where they’d met or how they’d grown up – which was strange, even though I hadn’t realized that it was strange until now. Mother looked peaceful, almost nostalgic, fingering the metal locket that she was wearing under the collar of her travelling jacket as she thought back. ‘It’s built in the middle of a forest called the Blackwood,’ she continued. ‘Some of the trees are older than humanity itself. I remember, we used to walk by the lake in summer…’ She sighed. ‘And the house is something else altogether. I think you’ll like it. Your father certainly did.’

‘If he liked it so much,’ I said, turning back to the window, ‘then why did he leave?’

Mother pursed her lips but said nothing, and our compartment fell back into silence.

By the time the train pulled into the station at Eboracum, the sky was dark with storm clouds, though the storm hadn’t broken yet. Mother hurried us through the station, its roof built like the nave of a great glass cathedral, all steel and smoke-stained glass arcing above us. William kept getting distracted – and of course it was up to me to make sure he didn’t get tripped over while ducking down to tie his shoe, or get caught swiping sweets from the overcrowded candy stalls, or get lost because he’d stopped to watch one of the street magicians floating balls and fruit and candles in mid-air next to the ticket stalls.

It wasn’t really magic of course, which was why the man wasn’t worried about Inquisitors. The tricks were all thread and distraction and sleight of hand. Magic might be useful for a great many things, most of them fairly evil, but floating apples was not one of them.

The way Dad had always explained it was this: the real world was really two worlds. There was the world of things – of apples and oranges and wooden balls and lit candles – and that world was ruled by the laws of physics, which were simple and immutable and easily reasoned out if you knew what to watch for.

But then, there was another world – the world of ideas. And that was where you had to watch out for magic. The reason magicians were so dangerous wasn’t because they could create flame or shoot lightning from their fingers, but because they had studied how to control minds. A skilled magician could trap a person in an Illusion of their worst fears or drive them mad with a Curse – but if he wanted to create so much as a spark in the world of things, he would’ve had to use phosphorus and gunpowder, just like the rest of us.

Maybe it would’ve been better if magic weren’t invisible. If it left bruises or burns, you’d be able to see the danger and avoid it. But thoughts are trickier things, and that’s why the Inquisitors insisted that we needed them to protect us.

The ‘magician’ made a show of turning his floating apple into an explosion of colourful sparks, and the gathered crowd clapped. A trio of passing Inquisitors didn’t even spare him a glance.

‘Think he’d let me borrow a firework?’ asked William before I managed to drag him away.

Uncle Edward’s coach (apparently, he was rich enough to have his own coach, coachman included) was waiting for us outside the station. After the coachman had loaded both us and our luggage into the carriage, there was yet another hour of sitting in silence while the world passed us by, dark, bare-fingered trees scraping the carriage windows as the rain broke over us, the horses’ hooves and our wheels clattering over the rough roads. William started to shiver, and I gave him my scarf to keep out the chill.

Finally, the rutted roads gave way to a cobbled drive, and in the distance, light flickered from the window of a high tower. The trees grew thicker, and a brass fence loomed out of the half-dark. As we passed under the gate that marked the boundary of the manor grounds, an icy chill ran under my skin, cold enough to make my bones rattle. I looked out to see the gate passing over us, strange shapes twisted into the wrought metal.

A Ward.

I twisted the ring on my finger, focusing my First Defence until my teeth stopped chattering, but the feeling refused to fade. Whatever Ward we had just passed through, it was even stronger than the Graveward at the cemetery, and it didn’t quite like the idea of us being there. 

Why ever would Uncle Edward need a Ward like that?

Dark things flitted in the murk outside – but when I leaned forward to see what they were, there was nothing: just the rain and the leafless trees passing beyond the window, and my breath leaving a cloud of fog on the glass, until Ravenscourt House came into view.

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Welcome to Chapter II of A Murder of Crows! If you like what you’ve seen so far, don’t forget to follow us and get email or WPReader updates of new chapters, as soon as they’re published:

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Deathmarks

Deathmarks are used by approved and licensed undertakers in order to ensure the rest and safe passing of our deceased loved ones. Though the particulars of the Deathmarks used in any specific case are unique to the individual spirit being treated, every proper pre-resting treatment will include the Anchor, the Eye, and the Knots, which ensure that the spirit will be able to pass on without trouble.

The Anchor is perhaps the most prominent Mark used in funerary preparations, as it covers a large part of the body, centered on the heart of the deceased. The purpose of the Anchor is to act as a replacement connection between the body and the spirit of the deceased while they await their resting. It ensures that the spirit of the dead person cannot wander away before being Rested. Without the Anchor, there is the possibility of the spirit lingering in other places, where it might take up residence as a ghost or poltergeist, eventually decaying into a hungry shade.

The Eye, which should be placed upon the deceased’s forehead as soon as possible after their death, is another vital component in preventing hauntings and dangerous incidents. The Eye guarantees the peace and slumber of the severed spirit while it awaits its final Resting. Without the binding power of the Eye, a spirit may become restless and destructive, filling a mourning house with whispers, cries, and other strange occurrences.

Last of all, the wholeness and integrity of the deceased’s spirit is preserved by the Knots—a set of at least three Marks placed upon the hands and throat of the dead person. The Knots ensure that the spirit remains intact throughout the time leading up the resting, and it is only once the Knots are removed during the resting service that a Resting Record may be taken. Without the safety of the Knots, the spirit would quickly begin to fray, which would allow pieces of it to remain behind—and indeed, after the Resting, the remaining resting Record is also preserved with a Knot.

A Most Dismal Prospect (Part 3)

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By the time we returned home, the drizzle had turned into a proper rain, fat drops of water plopping heavily against the cobbles. Mother hurried us inside and locked the door against the storm.

The house lay cold and empty, its ragged edges showing. Dad’s favourite tattered armchair sagged, fraying, next to the dead fireplace, and the warped windows were dull and dark behind the black mourning curtains. While Mother and William removed their coats and shoes, I ran my fingers over the Wardmarks that Dad had carved into the frame of our doorway, meant to keep out harm. He’d put them together himself, without asking the local Warder, and I’d always assumed he knew what he was doing – that the Wards worked.

Apparently not.

William drifted upstairs to his room, and Mother wasn’t far behind. I followed suit, and all three of us closed our doors, tired of dealing with the world. We hadn’t even gotten a chance to say goodbye, and now Inquisitors were asking if Dad had been involved in magic. I hadn’t thought it was possible for the day to get any worse than it already was, but there you have it. I sat watching the darkness rise outside my window. The sun had fully set when there came a knock at the front door.

I rose from my half-sleeping stupor and poked my head into the hallway. William was doing the same at the door next to mine. He raised his eyebrows in a question, which I answered with a shrug before we both crept to the banister of the stair, to see what was happening below. William crept too far down, and I had to pull him back, but he batted my hand away. Eventually, we settled for crouching side-by-side at the top of the stair, just far enough down that we could see most of the parlour.

Mother was peering through the peephole. A moment later, she pulled open the door for whoever it was that had knocked. The visitor stepped into the house, and I had to choke down a gasp.

It was the dark-haired gentleman who had tipped his hat to me in the cemetery.

‘Who’s that?’ whispered William.

The man removed his hat, and the memory hit me like a wave of déjà vu. This was the man who had come to our house that night, six years ago, on William’s fifth birthday, not long after my brother had suffered his first fit. The man had stepped into our house in just the same quiet way he did now, but by the end of the night, he and Dad had gotten into a raging row, and the one thing I remembered was Dad yelling at the man to leave our house and never return. The man had. And that, I thought, had been the end of it.

‘It’s our uncle,’ I explained to my brother. ‘Edward. Dad’s brother.’ I leaned further down the steps to peer at the scene below. Mother stood with her arms crossed while Uncle Edward hovered by the doorway, leaning on his cane, his eyes passing over the house as if cataloguing everything.

What was he doing here?

‘I came as soon as I heard,’ said Uncle Edward finally.

‘I figured you’d show up sooner or later.’

‘Maris, you know that I am fully invested in what happens to all of you. Whatever Lewis’ attitude about it may have been, that has always been my stance. Still–’

‘I worry, Edward.’

‘About the Court?’

Mother’s voice was soft. ‘About the children. About William. Especially given–’

‘I know,’ said Uncle Edward. Mother turned away, drifting to the other side of the parlour, and Uncle Edward followed her. I couldn’t go much further down the steps, but their voices were clear in the silent house.

‘Perhaps you should come to Ravenscourt for a bit – just a few weeks,’ said Uncle Edward. ‘I can contact people, and we can figure out the next move.’

I looked at William, who frowned back. The man couldn’t possibly be serious. Dad had kicked him out of our house with an order never to return. Surely he didn’t think… 

‘Perhaps we should,’ said Mother softly.

Silence rose up again. I couldn’t fathom what was going through her head.

‘Shall we say that you will visit by the end of the month?’ said Uncle Edward.

Mother sighed. ‘The end of the month it is.’

Uncle Edward made quick steps back toward the door. ‘I look forward to seeing you then,’ he said, and with a short bow, he replaced his hat and let himself out. ‘Farewell, Maris.’

‘Farewell,’ whispered Mother.

The door clicked closed, and Mother turned the lock and latched the chain. Her eyes moved to the top of the stairs, where she found us staring. If she were surprised, it didn’t show.

‘I think we’ll be going on a little trip soon,’ she said, her voice oddly light. ‘Won’t that be fun?’

☽★☾ 

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A Most Dismal Prospect (Part 2)

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The priest whispered harshly at the undertaker, and I knew, even without looking, that Mother’s eyes were following me as I stalked away, but I didn’t care. I didn’t stop, didn’t look back – not until I’d reached the other side of the graveyard, hidden beyond one of the mausoleums.

Still, I wasn’t alone. A man stood at the gate with a cane at his side, wearing a black suit and a frown that seemed severe even by graveyard standards. As I slowed to a stop next to a granite headstone (Maeve Finche, beloved wife and mother, 1823-1862), the man nodded at me and tipped his hat. I could’ve sworn I’d never seen the man before – he didn’t look like any of the people in town, and my parents had never been too keen on visitors or friends, so it was unlikely that he knew them. As much as I tried to place him, he didn’t fit anywhere in my memory, yet…

There was something about him – about the way he stood, the way he moved, the fact that he’d tipped his hat at me – that held a threat of recognition.

He slipped into the cemetery, stepping through the boundary of the Graveward without even the smallest flinch of discomfort. He had to lean heavily on his cane as he crossed the cemetery, but he barely looked down: if he’d come to visit someone, he didn’t waste time looking for them among the graves. I marked his halting walk across the grounds, and just as he was about to turn the corner of the mausoleum, I made to follow him–

He shot a glare over his shoulder, and our eyes met, his severe frown as clear a warning as any. I froze. He shook his head, once – a small gesture, almost invisible – and the next moment, he’d continued on, to disappear among the stones.

I was left standing with Maeve Finche’s femurs somewhere below my feet, wondering if there was any point in trying to find out what was going on with Dad’s service.

Before I could convince myself that there was, William wandered over, picking his way carefully around the graves to avoid stepping on the dead. With a huff, I sank down into the grass sprouting above Maeve’s skull, and waited for my brother to join me.

‘Mum’s in a fit,’ said William. ‘The priest went to fetch an Inquisitor.’

‘Well, they have to report the missing spirit, don’t they?’ I said, trying to keep my voice light. But the truth was that Inquisitors were bad news. The Inquisitorial Order was the humourless group of men and women who made sure that everyone was suitably afraid of magic, which was supposed to prevent us from trying to hire magicians to Curse our enemies, or from studying to become magicians so we could Curse our enemies ourselves. Of course, if any of the Inquisitors’ scare tactics actually worked, they’d all have been out of a job, because really, their main purpose was to hunt down magicians and make a big show of burning them alive – or hanging them, though burnings tended to be more popular.

In their endless quest to stamp out magic, the Inquisitors were naturally interested in any spiritual anomalies, which apparently included botched Resting services.

‘The priest insisted,’ said William. ‘I bet they’ll pin it on the undertaker and arrest him for magic. I mean, who else could they blame?’

Part of me felt sorry for the undertaker. If the Inquisitors did decide to blame him for a stolen spirit, there’d be very little he could do besides burn for it. But I hadn’t gotten to Rest my dad, and there was another part of me that wanted someone to burn for that. ‘Would serve him right,’ I said.

William frowned. ‘What if Dad just managed to pass on without their help?’ he said.

‘He’s still gone.’

‘So you don’t think there’s a heaven?’ asked William.

‘No.’

‘No eternal life?’

‘He’s quite dead.’

‘So you think the spirit just… disappears, after everything?’

I gave him another look – his second one this morning. ‘I didn’t say that.’

He went silent for a minute, the way he does when he’s trying to sort out a math problem in his head. And then:

‘What’s it like to be dead then, I wonder?’

And because that was a question with no easy answer, I said: ‘Don’t ask stupid questions,’ and held out my hand so that he’d help me up from the grass.

We wandered back toward Dad’s grave as a light drizzle began to fall, to find Mother talking to an Inquisitor. His silver-trimmed cloak flapped in the breeze.

‘They’re quick,’ said William.

Too quick, I thought. I went to join Mother next to the grave.

‘…in any case,’ the Inquisitor was saying, ‘we would like to ask you some questions to get to the bottom of this regrettable incident. First things first: did your husband have any enemies, Mrs. Crowe?’

‘Enemies, Sir Inquisitor?’ echoed Mother, her face pinching into a frown. ‘Surely you aren’t suggesting–’

‘Murderers often find it useful to cover their steps with magic,’ said the Inquisitor with a shrug.

Mother’s voice was chilly as she informed the Inquisitor that, no, Dad didn’t have enemies, which was the single truest thing I’d heard today. There was absolutely no reason why anyone would’ve wanted to hurt Dad, much less kill him. He’d always kept to himself, more interested in plants and flowers than making trouble. The very thought of Dad having enemies was absurd, at best. And yet–

And yet, he’d dropped dead one night for no reason. There was no explanation for it that made sense.

A blotch of shadow shifted at the other side of the graveyard, and I looked away from the Inquisitor to find the stranger from the gate standing there, hat pulled low over his face, watching. He leaned against one of the gravestones and lit a pipe while the Inquisitor continued to ask questions:

‘Is it possible that he ran afoul of someone in town?’

‘Any neighbours who might have had a grudge?’

‘Could Lewis have been involved in any sort of magic himself?’

‘Sir Inquisitor,’ said Mother sharply. ‘I don’t know what you’re hoping to discover. I’ve already told you what everyone already knows, and if you honestly believe–’

‘My apologies, Mrs. Crowe,’ said the Inquisitor. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. Mother had a way of doing that to people. ‘I suppose that this must be a difficult situation for everyone involved, so I want to assure you, once more, that we will do our utmost to uncover the culprit.’ He coughed. ‘If there’s nothing else, I think I’m done here–’

‘But you haven’t told us when we’ll be able to Rest him,’ I said before the Inquisitor could make his easy exit. ‘You’re going to find out who took his spirit, and you’re going to get it back, right? That’s what you’re supposed to do.’

For the first time, the Inquisitor set his eyes on me. I refused to look away, scowling right back at him until he shook his head. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘in cases like these, it’s rare that a spirit is stolen intact. I’m sorry to say that, whether lost by accident or foul play, it’s unlikely we will be able to recover Mr. Crowe’s spirit.’ He gave one last nod to Mother, before walking away into the drizzle.

Mother let him. She wasn’t watching the Inquisitor; she was staring at the other side of the graveyard, where the stranger had been smoking while the Inquisitor talked. I looked to see if he’d seen her–

But the stranger was already gone.

We were alone.

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