Wards and Warnings (Part 4)

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‘Wait!’ I called, running after the gardener.

She didn’t even turn. She was humming to herself, actually humming as she rounded a corner with the express purpose of leaving us completely in the dark. And she was quick about it too – I had to run to catch up with her, trying to get her to stop. ‘You can’t just ask all of that and then walk off!’

She kept walking.

‘It’s not fair!’

She didn’t even look.

William was hurrying behind me, but rather than helping, he kept looking at me like he wanted us to leave. Before the gardener could round another corner and get away entirely, I darted in front of her to block her way.

‘Tell us what you know!’

Finally, she paused, and under the shadow of her hat, her lips curled into a smile. ‘Determined, are we?’

‘We ought to know, if it had something to do with Dad’s death,’ I answered.

‘Very well then. I’ll tell you what I can tell you, but not here, and not now. These roses have ears and they’re all terrible gossips. Besides, they’ll be looking for you for dinner–’

And just as she said it, the manor bells rang out for six, and somewhere, far away, the Housekeeper’s voice called our names.

‘Well, if you’re not going to tell us now, then when?’

The gardener looked toward the sky, at the scattered clouds and sinking sun. ‘Tomorrow…’ she said, savouring the word. ‘Tomorrow, we can talk. Meet me at the entrance to the maze an hour before noon.’

‘I guess we’ll see you tomorrow then, Miss… er…’ She hadn’t even told us her name, I realized, though she knew ours well enough.

‘Beatrice, child,’ she said. ‘Beatrice LeNoir.’ And with a tip of her hat, she disappeared into the hedges.

Of course she’d left without showing us the way out, and we couldn’t even backtrack, not unless we wanted to step through another hedge. The Housekeeper’s voice sounded from beyond the high hedges:

‘Where are you, you useless brats!’

William pointed up, to where the very tip of Ravenscourt’s highest tower just managed to peek above the roses, and using that as a landmark, and the Old Toad’s voice as a guide, we began trying to find our way out of the maze. It was like playing a game of Marco Polo: every time we came to a crossroads, or a turn where we couldn’t see the tower, we stopped, and listened, and sure enough:

‘I know you came out here, you worthless–’

At last, we stumbled out of the maze, right at the entrance where she’d been yelling the whole time. ‘Where were you?’ she demanded, grabbing us by the arms, before noticing the scratches left by the thorns. ‘And what have you done to your clothes!’

‘We got lost in the maze, ma’am,’ which of course was perfectly honest.

‘Well, that maze has made you nearly twenty minutes late for dinner,’ said the Housekeeper, and her face curdled into a smile. I doubted that a smile from the Housekeeper could mean anything good. ‘And seeing as how it would take at least another hour to make you even half-way presentable, I rather think that going to bed without supper would be a good–’

A soft cough sounded from the path.

We all turned to where Mother had appeared on the path, prim and proper as ever, though for once, her pointed frown wasn’t directed at me or William, which was a relief. She glared directly at the Housekeeper, who let us go immediately, and bobbed her head at Mother – just low enough to avoid being completely disrespectful.

‘Mrs. Thompson,’ said Mother.

‘Please, Mrs. Crowe. Ellen will suffice.’

‘Ellen, then,’ said Mother, giving the Housekeeper the small, tight smile that she usually reserved for beggars and door-to-door salesmen. ‘Edward told me he had entrusted the care of my children to your capable hands. I’m sorry we haven’t had the chance to speak before now. Have they been much trouble?’

‘Nothing worse than I’ve had to handle before,’ croaked the Housekeeper shortly.

‘Good,’ said Mother. Her voice had taken on a dangerous tone that I knew well. It was the tone she’d used when the catechism teacher had told her I was looking up Curses to use on the other girls – though really, all I’d been trying to do was find an Illusion or Charm to make them not quite so horrifically annoying. It was the same tone she’d used when she’d caught Dad sneaking carnivorous plants into the house, or when William–

Well, William probably thought it was her normal voice.

‘Because I would hate to tell Edward his trust was ill-founded,’ continued Mother. ‘In any case, I’d rather their punishments were discussed with me, rather than handed out at whim.’

The Housekeeper’s face had gone positively sour. ‘Of course, Mrs. Crowe,’ she said, bowing her head, though she still couldn’t hide the malice in her lidded eyes.

‘Now,’ said Mother. ‘I’ll see them to dinner – I rather think you have things to clean and organize tonight?’ And without waiting for a response, she turned back toward the house, waving for us to follow. The Housekeeper couldn’t do anything but glare as we walked away. I had to fight the urge to stick my tongue out at her.

But then we were inside, and when Mother closed the door behind us, her lips were still pressed into that tight frown. ‘Would you care to explain to me what you were doing that you managed to do that to your clothes? Never mind the fact that the Housekeeper had to drag you in for dinner!’

‘We were just exploring,’ I said. Surely she could’ve understood that? ‘We’ve been trapped in this stuffy old house for nearly a week!’

‘We got lost in the rose maze,’ added William.

It didn’t help. ‘I guess it doesn’t really matter,’ said Mother with a sigh. ‘But Abigail, William, dears, there are rules here. You’re guests. I can’t have you running wild the way you have been–’

‘We weren’t running wild–’ I said, as William protested, ‘We weren’t breaking any rules–’ but Mother held up her hand.

‘I don’t want to hear it,’ she said. ‘If you insist on spurning your uncle’s orders, there really won’t be anything I can do about it. This is his house after all.’ She sighed again, and looked up at the ceiling, as if searching for guidance. ‘I rather think a lack of dinner would actually be a good lesson. So just… just go to your rooms. And try not to get into any more trouble? Please?’

I couldn’t imagine how she could be serious about the whole thing, but she was, and she completely ignored any further arguments. And so, there was nothing for us to do but go back to our rooms, Mother peering after us, as if to make sure we didn’t set the house on fire right then and there just to spite her.

‘She’s one to talk,’ said William sullenly when we’d finally left her behind.

And there was really nothing I could say to that. Lunch had been ages ago, and an unpleasant feeling had settled into my stomach – though it had very little to do with hunger. ‘That gardener,’ I said at last, ‘Beatrice… what do you think she meant about Father being disowned?’

William paused, frowning in thought. ‘Well, it would make sense, wouldn’t it?’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, the fact that Dad never talked about Uncle Edward – and also that we never knew about all this–’ he gestured to the whole wide house: the cobwebbed ceiling and faded carpets and peeling, ancient walls, and the great doors of the library standing closed in front of us. ‘I feel like we should’ve known,’ he said. ‘But you know what is interesting? She said something about places like this attracting ghosts. Do you think that’s true?’

I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. ‘I don’t know, why?’

‘I just… well, there’s an entire section in the library about Wards and Restings and magic and stuff, and I was wondering… if Dad’s spirit wasn’t rested… well, then…’

‘What could’ve happened to it?’ I said, voicing the question that I hadn’t dared to ask since the Resting. The library doors with their carvings of intertwined trees and mysterious words glared down at us. ‘I don’t think it would hurt to try to find out. And since we’ve got nothing else to do tonight…’

William grinned. ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’

To be continued…

Thank you for reading chapter three of A Murder of Crows! The full book is always available for purchase here. 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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In any case, until next time — Farewell from the Ladies at Ravenscourt.

Wards and Warnings (Part 3)

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I paused, and William looked at me. He’d heard it too. And without exchanging a single word about it, we started running toward the sound. But it shifted and softened and echoed, and it was no use trying to tell where it was coming from, really, because every single time we thought we were close, the path turned away. At last, after hours, we found ourselves at a dead end, with the snip of the scissors, or the clippers, or whatever they were, very close by. We could even hear the soft whisper of the rose branches as they fell at the feet of whoever was trimming them. They were just on the other side of the hedge – the bushes trembled a little, and I could hear them humming – but the only path was behind us. There was no other way to get through the foot or two of rose hedges between us and the gardener.

Except, of course, by going through the hedge.

When you do something unfathomably silly or stupid – or rather, when you’re about to do something unfathomably silly or stupid – it’s often in your best interest to think about it for another moment to stop yourself from doing it. The important exception to this is when that silly or stupid thing you’re about to do has got to be done anyway. In that case, it’s best not to think about it at all, and rather to just step forward, thrust your hands into the hedge full of sharp, bloodthirsty thorns, and push your way through to the other side.

It only took a few difficult steps – less than ten seconds, really – though the thorns were everywhere, scraping my face and hands and dress. I stumbled into the corridor on the other side, nearly toppling into the woman who was standing there tending to the bushes. The snip of the hedge clippers fell silent, and she looked over, her eyes hidden in shadow beneath her wide-brimmed hat and her flyaway hair, and even though her lips were quirked in amusement, I could tell she wasn’t particularly surprised.

And then William tumbled through the hedge after me, and of course he did trip into the gardener, crashing into her skirts before falling backward into the dirt with a muffled ‘ow!’

‘Sorry!’ he spluttered. I had never been prouder.

Before I could step forward, the gardener bent down, to grasp William’s arm in her long, dark fingers and pull him standing. ‘Well now,’ she said once he was on his feet, still holding him steady by his arm. Her voice was laughing, even if she wasn’t. ‘What do we have here? Are you a sort of insect?’

William stared at the gardener, though if she found it rude, she didn’t show it. ‘Do we look like insects?’

The gardener let go of him at last and dusted a bit of dirt from his sleeve. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t suppose you have the legs for it. Shame, really. Aphids are easily dealt with, but humans? Now there’s a real pest.’

I guess we’d found our host, though I was starting to wonder whether that was a good thing. She turned back to her rose bushes and bent down, as if to sniff the flowers – except that all the roses were already dead. ‘So, Miss Abigail and Young Mister William,’ she said as she took up her clippers once more. ‘How are you enjoying your stay in the house?’

I didn’t even begin to answer before she’d cut me off:

‘I find it rather too draughty for my tastes,’ she said. ‘Too much dust and cobwebby stuff and you can never be sure about the shades.’

‘Shades,’ echoed William. He’d started looking at the gardener as if she might be slightly dangerous, and I didn’t blame him.

‘You mean unrested spirits?’ I said. ‘You can’t be serious. Surely we would’ve noticed.’

The gardener pursed her lips. ‘How do you figure that?’

‘Well, you can’t live in a place with shades,’ I said, which was true. ‘They’d drain all the spirit out of you, and then you’d be dead yourself, with nothing left of you but your own shade.’

‘There are ghosts and shades in any place this old, Miss Abigail,’ said the gardener. She picked a withered rose from the hedge and tossed it mindlessly over her shoulder. ‘Oh, certainly, not the kind that screech and wander about as they wish and feed on living spirits all the time. But in a place like this – well… shades and ghosts tend to like dusty old houses and overgrown manors and all the forgotten corners of the world. Or didn’t Lewis teach you anything?’

At the mention of Dad’s name, my fingers went automatically to the ring on my thumb. ‘You knew our father,’ I said, trying to keep my voice even. 

‘Yes, I knew him,’ said the gardener, punctuating her words with snips from her hedge clippers. ‘And look, there it is, talking about him in the past tense. Never thought I’d live to see the day… I was very sorry to hear of his – how shall we say? – unfortunate demise.’ She let the hedge clippers fall still, lowering her head and tracing a circle in the dirt with her shoe. Quiet settled over us. ‘Tell me, then: how did it happen?’

I glanced at William, who shrugged back. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we don’t know, really, you see. We just woke up and–’

‘And he was gone,’ finished William for me.

The gardener went suddenly still, her foot poised in front of her. ‘You mean–?’

‘We weren’t able to rest him or anything,’ I said.

The gardener turned to look at us, and finally, she pulled back her hat so we could see her eyes – golden eyes, quick, sharp, and piercing as a cat’s, as if they could see through anything. Those eyes ran over me, and then over my brother, and perhaps they saw something in us under the thorn scratches and grime, because the gardener put down her tools altogether and focused on us fully for the first time. ‘So then tell me now: what do you make of that?’

What did we make of it? What sort of question was that? What were we supposed to ‘make of’ it? I looked to William, only to find that he was focused fully on the gardener.

‘The Inquisitor was asking about enemies,’ he said. ‘He seemed to think it meant Dad was murdered.’

‘Only it couldn’t have been,’ I said, before the gardener could get the wrong idea. ‘It simply couldn’t–’

‘And why not?’ asked the gardener softly. She was staring straight at me now, those golden eyes watching, and her once-quirked lips had bent into a half frown.

‘Well, Dad didn’t have enemies,’ I said, though as much as I believed that, as much as I said it, I was starting to wonder: how could I be sure of that? How could I be sure of anything when Dad had just suddenly dropped dead one night, and when he had never mentioned a single thing about Ravenscourt before, had never talked about why he’d left, or how he and Mother had ended up in a tiny town on the north tip of Caledonia? How could I be sure of anything at all?

The gardener’s face went suddenly grim. ‘Did they never tell you?’ she asked.

‘Tell us?’ I asked at the same time that William said, ‘What?’

‘What happened when your father left? How he was disowned?’

‘Disowned?’ The word felt like a punch in the chest.

‘So they didn’t tell you,’ said the gardener, half to herself. She shook her head, and when she spoke again, I got the feeling that she’d forgotten we were there. ‘To think that he wouldn’t have told them! You’d assume, considering everything… Irresponsible! Irresponsible as always – but no, it’s not my place. Best not get involved.’ And with that, she packed up her trowel, her clippers, and her gloves, picked up her basket, and began to walk away.

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Wards and Warnings (Part 2)

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Our first three days at the Manor, the rain did not stop. Wind and sleet and water battered against the windows while the sky churned with storm, and every night, the echo of ghastly wails sounded from somewhere above, just weak and eerie enough for me to wonder if they had come from the wind or my imagination, or if they were the same as the scream that we’d heard the first night.  There was no escape from the cobweb-curtained corridors of the house, and we had nothing to do but lose ourselves in the library, or when that grew tiresome, to attempt explorations of the other wings, though that was almost impossible without provoking the Housekeeper (‘that old toad,’ as William started calling her). And with every exploration, I couldn’t help but hear Uncle Edward’s story echoing in the back of my mind, as if he’d meant it as a sort of warning.

Still, we never ran into him – or Mother, for that matter. Whatever the adults did all day, we saw them only during the shifty silences of lunch and dinner. And so, when the rain finally did let up and the sun decided to cast a few damp rays of light into the Dining Hall, it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping up right then and there and running outside with William in tow. No, we had to wait until the adults had laid down their silverware and then politely ask to be excused. Only when we’d done that, and the adults gave us their permission, could we jump up and run.


In any case, our explorations had not been in vain. We’d found several doors leading outside, though most of them opened into courtyards and walled gardens, and there was one just downstairs from our room that let you out near the servants’ quarters, with nothing but the stables in front of you. But there was one door at the end of the hall lined all with windows – a stained glass door that had been locked and bolted tight, and that was the door I wanted to open, as I was sure it led down to the back lawn and the woods beyond.

When we got there, light was shining through the stained glass. I had brought an extra hair pin in case William needed to pick the lock – but I needn’t have bothered. A note had been tucked behind the door handle, a square of cream-coloured card with a message in green ink:

Dear esteemed guest, Miss Abigail and Master William, you are cordially invited to the Rose Garden for a moment of reminiscence in honour of your late father. With deepest sympathies... (The door is unlocked, I think you'll find)

I couldn’t even begin to read the signature at the bottom, except for an overlarge B and a looping L with far too many lines and curves. William squinted at the note himself for a minute before shrugging and trying the door handle.

It was, in fact, unlocked. We pulled open the door and stepped into a place bathed in daylight, the air fresh and warm – too warm for late November. William looked up, blinking, and I looked up too, at the cage of glass and rusting metal arcing above us, and then down at the iron stair twisting away below, leading into a teeming jungle of plants. Trapped birds chattered among the leaves and vines and the air was full of the thick, damp smell of growing things. The door, it turned out, didn’t lead outside at all, but rather to a greenhouse – the largest greenhouse I’d ever seen: big enough to hold the tiny patch of yard behind our old house (which Dad always insisted on calling the garden) several times over. Perhaps it was even big enough to fit the old house itself.

‘Oh lovely,’ said William flatly. ‘Plants.’

‘Don’t be that way,’ I said, pulling him down the stairs and into the jungle. There were drooping clusters of kingsfoil and blooming mandrakes, and dark, rusty bloodmoss, all of which I pointed out to William, while he pointedly ignored me. But there was no sign of roses, or of the stranger who had invited us there. It wasn’t long before William started complaining about the stuffy air and the stuffy light and the stuffy plants, and so, at last, we found the door that led outside, and with it, another note:

Straight ahead and into the maze...

I stuck the note into my sock, and together, William and I ventured out into the manor. The outdoor gardens lay withered and dull under the tattered clouds. In the distance, the dark tree line of the Blackwood marked the edge of a grey sky. Our path cut through a forest of bushes sculpted in the shape of giant chessmen, before ending at the trellised arch that marked the entrance to the Rose Garden. Naturally, our mysterious host had left a third card perched among the thorny branches.

Please be advised to watch your fingers, these roses can still bite.

William raised his eyebrows at that one. Whoever our host was, I was starting to doubt that they were particularly sane – which was, perhaps, all the more reason to find out exactly who they were. I took William’s hand, and we stepped into the rose garden. The path twisted and turned and it took only a few minutes before we were completely lost within the maze, the thorny hedges rising, unbroken, on all sides, and the dead leaves rattling in the wind, and our feet squelching over brown, fallen petals, as we looked in all directions for an escape – but there was no escape, just more hedges, and more thorns, and more dead leaves, and somewhere, very close by, the snip, snip, snip of scissors clipping trimmings from the hedge.

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

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.


‘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?’

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

doorways leading into darkness

Ravenscourt Manor (Part 3)

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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.’

William coughed.

‘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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Ravenscourt Manor (Part 2)

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Blurred through the windows and the rain, the house was a great big jumble of rough walls and dark windows and tiled roofs, the gables and towers all mixed up and twisted together to form a puzzle of black stone. The windows lay empty behind iron bars, without a single glimmer of fire or lamp light, except for the high tower. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had told me it was abandoned – it wasn’t the sort of place that invited people to live in it.

And yet…

And yet, those empty windows gave me the creeping sense that someone – or something – was waiting behind them, watching.

The carriage rolled to a stop, and the driver hopped down to open the door, holding out a hand and an umbrella for Mother, both of which she took without hesitation. I leapt down without his help (earning a tsk from Mother) to take a proper look at the great double doors of the house’s main entrance. They lay wide open, revealing a dark, empty space that managed to be the complete opposite of welcoming. The rain pounded on the stones around us, and Mother drew me and William next to her, sheltering all of us under the umbrella as she ushered us through those doors and into the darkness beyond.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. The entrance hall was smaller than I’d expected, though also taller: a square space with a ceiling so high that it lay hidden in darkness, the walls lined with cobwebby statues and dull portraits, and in every corner, some marble face or painted portrait was frowning about something. In front of us, a pair of grand staircases arced upward to the first floor. While Mother shook the rain out of her coat, William tugged on my arm, pointing to the doors behind us, which had begun to move. As I watched, the doors swung shut, gears and levers ticking and grinding, the light and the wind and the rain of the world outside disappearing with one final click – 

‘Clockwork,’ I whispered, but William’s fingers continued to clutch my sleeve. I didn’t push him away.

‘Ah, Maris!’ rang a voice from the top of the stairs. I looked up to see Uncle Edward making his way down the stairs, trailed by a lopsided couple in black. The man was tall, with a long, severe face while the woman was short and round and dumpy – servants, I realized with a twinge of something like annoyance. Of course Uncle Edward would have servants. Mother had never had so much as a cleaning lady to help her with the housework, but Uncle Edward had apparently inherited all the things that Dad hadn’t: coaches and manors and Warded gates and even the help.

He shuffled down the last few steps into the hall, and took Mother’s hand in his own. ‘It is so good to see you here,’ he said. ‘How was your trip?’

‘Exhausting,’ answered Mother, handing her gloves off to the manservant and dismissing him with a wave. He took them with a bow and turned to busy himself with the luggage while the other servant lingered at the bottom of the steps. ‘But overall, quite a pleasant journey, even if long,’ continued Mother. ‘I just wish this had all been under better circumstances.’

‘Of course.’ Uncle Edward stepped back, his gaze shifting from Mother to land on me and my brother. There was something intense and searching in the way he looked at us, something quietly discomforting – I’d seen the same look on Dad’s face far too often: it was the look of a scientist who’d just discovered some fascinating new specimen.

‘William and Abigail, I take it?’ he said at last. He held out his hand, waiting for my brother to shake it. ‘You have grown a bit since I last saw you, young William.’

My brother simply stared at the offered handshake, before looking back up to our uncle, his hands refusing to let go of my jacket. ‘I don’t remember ever seeing you,’ he said simply.

Mother shot him a glare, but Uncle Edward gave a short laugh and let his hand drop. ‘It was quite a while ago,’ he said. ‘Five or six years, now, I think. You must be thirteen by now?’

‘Eleven,’ said William shortly.

‘And have you been taking all your medicines?’

William looked to Mother for some sign, and she gave a short, exasperated nod. My brother refused to look up as he answered: ‘Yes, I have.’

Uncle Edward considered him for a moment, as if he wanted to ask more, but at last, he nodded. ‘Good boy,’ he said. Though he didn’t go so far as to pat my brother on the head, he might as well have. He turned his focus to me. ‘And you, Abigail, my dear? How are we?’

His attention made me suddenly, keenly aware of the cold water still seeping from my coat, of the wind howling outside the closed door and the rain pounding against the stone walls. I was already twisting my ring without realizing it, and my heart was pounding, though I didn’t know why. I didn’t trust myself to answer. Instead, I took several deep breaths, coiling them into the bottom of my lungs: the Second Defence.

The Second Defence is self-control, and you must master your breath to maintain it.

Slowly, the panic faded, like the tide going out, and I looked up to meet my uncle’s eyes. ‘I am quite well, sir, thank you,’ I answered evenly.

He tilted his head, and I refused to let my gaze drop, breathing in my defences to keep me steady. Finally, he shook his head and laughed, turning back to Mother and talking to her again – as if we’d never existed.

‘I do think it has been far too long since you have visited, Maris. Perhaps a tour is in order?’

‘Of course,’ said Mother, though her hand moved to clasp my shoulder. 

Uncle Edward didn’t miss it. ‘No need to worry about a thing,’ he said, gesturing to the servants still hovering close by. ‘My Housekeeper, Mrs. Thompson, will settle them into their rooms. And Galen will take care of the luggage, of course.’

Mother’s eyes flicked to William. ‘You’re certain that–’

‘They can come to no harm within these walls. That much I can assure you.’

At last she seemed convinced. When Uncle Edward offered his hand, she took it, following him into the shadows of the house. I almost called out for her to stay – but she was already gone, and William and I were left staring at the sour-faced Housekeeper.

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