‘Ow! Abby!’ exclaimed William as he tumbled to the floor, the room plunging into complete black.
My heart was hammering. I glared at my brother – or at least, toward him, as best I could figure, in the darkness. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ said William, rustling in his pockets for another match. It hissed as he lit it, summoning a sphere of warm, yellow light.
‘Yes, well, I was sleeping, if you didn’t notice!’
William frowned. ‘I just – I think there’s something in the attic,’ he said, his voice small. ‘Maybe we should check on Mum? I mean, just in case – ow!’ He shook out the match as it nipped at his fingers.
‘Just in case?’ I said while my brother fumbled with the matches. ‘She’s an adult. She can take care of herself. Besides, I’d be more worried about letting your sister sleep, if I were you.’
Another hiss, the match flared. William frowned at me. ‘But–’
‘But nothing!’ I said, pulling the blankets over my head. ‘I was sleeping, and you should be too!’
And with a sigh, he shook out the match and shuffled out of the room.
But now, I was fully awake, and finding my way back to sleep was worse than impossible. The howling and the creaking and the dripping refused to fade. And William’s worried question gnawed at me as well: just in case.
Just in case what?
What was a very unpleasant thing to think about.
‘You want to go check on Mum?’ I asked him as I stomped back out into the sitting room. Luckily there were more than enough candles scattered around the fireplace where he’d been trying to sculpt them. I swiped one up and held it out for him to light. ‘Let’s go then.’
We poked our heads into the hall, looking for any sign of which way to head, but there was none, so we settled for picking a direction at random and trying every door we came to.
Most of them were locked.
The few that weren’t led only to empty rooms. There was one done all in blue (and cobwebs), and another done all in red (with more cobwebs), and one wide hall with a beautiful grand piano forgotten in the corner, which scattered sharps to the air as William ran his fingers over the keys.
There was one dark corridor that seemed to go on and on into oblivion, and another wide hall lined all with windows, which showed nothing of outside but a thrashing sea of treetops. A set of towering doors led to a grand library, lightning flickering through the far windows to reveal shelves upon shelves of books. But among all those corridors and all those doors, there was still no sign of Mother.
We came to a gallery lined with portraits – all the former masters of Ravenscourt Manor scowled down on us from the left, while on the right hung their Lady Crowes. Atreus and Rosemarie, James and Elsabeth, Grahame and Lily Isabella – sixteen pairs of portraits stood guard over the hall until at the very end of the row, where the most recent Master should have sat, there was only an empty space, and across from it:
‘Ariel Raban-Black,’ I read from the nameplate. A woman with ice-blue eyes smiled down at us, her black hair pulled back from a delicate, bone-pale face.
A chill ran through the hall, and the candle went out.
I reached for William in the darkness, and his hand found mine. Every noise in the house sounded a thousand times louder – the drafts creeping through cracked windows, the drip and drizzle of water outside, the soft patter of footsteps–
The warm glow of a lamp appeared at the other end of the hall, and I pulled William behind me, stepping forward toward whoever it was. The corridor flooded with light–
And there she was.
Mother paused at the end of the hall, raising the lamp to look at us properly, and I had to raise an arm to shield my eyes against the light. For a moment, all three of us stood frozen, as if caught in the middle of a crime. But then Mother tsked, and she stalked toward us, adjusting the collar of her travelling coat.
‘What are you doing, wandering the halls?’ she said. ‘At this hour! Why, you should both be in bed!’
‘We were worried,’ I said. ‘We couldn’t sleep.’
‘We think there’s something in the attic,’ added William.
‘William thinks there’s something in the attic,’ I clarified.
Mother tsked again. ‘Come now, there’s no use for all that. Let’s get you back to your rooms, and no more wandering!’
She ushered us through the corridors, back down the gallery and past the dark hall, the light of her lamp throwing everything into sharp relief. ‘Are they taking good care of you?’ she asked as she led us past the library doors.
William stifled a snort, while I shook my head. ‘Not really.’
‘Well, that’s not at all–’
A scream sounded from above – a sudden, piercing shriek, silenced as soon as it was heard. I looked at William, whose face had gone ash-white, before both of us looked to Mother.
She was looking upward, but her eyes quickly flicked back to the floor. And then she was urging us forward again, down one of the side corridors near the library. ‘I shall have to have a word with the housekeeper,’ she said, as if there’d been no interruption at all. ‘I daresay they haven’t had to accommodate guests for a long time, but that’s hardly an acceptable excuse…’
William and I exchanged a look that said all we wanted to say to each other. We had all heard that scream – so why was Mother pretending she hadn’t?
‘This is my room,’ said Mother, unlocking a door near the end of the hall. ‘Now just let me–’
‘We can get back to our room ourselves,’ I offered. ‘It’s not far from here.’
Mother hesitated, her eyes darting to the hallway stretching behind us, and back to me. But then she bent down with a swift kiss for each of us. ‘Mind that you go directly back,’ she said before stepping into her room, though she watched us make our way back down the hall before finally closing the door.
‘You heard that scream, right?’ said William as we turned into the next corridor. ‘I didn’t just imagine it?’
‘I heard it,’ I said. ‘Though Mum didn’t seem to pay it much mind.’
‘And you don’t think that’s strange?’
Of course it was strange. Even stranger was the fact that Mother had been wandering the halls at all – and still in her travelling clothes, no less. What reason could she have to still be up? Had she been up and about all this time?
What had she been doing?
‘I’m not going to be able to sleep,’ said William when we reached our rooms. He made no move to open the door.
‘What do you want to do then?’ I asked.
In the end, we decided to go back to the library, slipping through the halls with the quiet purpose of a quest. The monstrous doors opened easily, despite their height, and we found ourselves among the books, the ghostly light of dawn just beginning to tint the windows blue. The library was so tall, so wide, that the corners were still cloaked in darkness. And all the walls of that entire space were lined with books: three full stories of them, with a maze of shelves below.
I didn’t know where to start. But before either of us could so much as take a single step toward any of the shelves, the doors slammed closed behind us.
I turned, only to find myself face to face with the old Housekeeper.
And that was Chapter II of A Murder of Crows! Thank you so much for reading — 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.