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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, 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.
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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