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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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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Thank you for reading 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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In any case, until next time — Farewell from the Ladies at Ravenscourt.

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