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…


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

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.

Manners.

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.

‘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?’

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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.

Ravenscourt Manor (Part 4)

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‘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.

‘Shhhhhh!’

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–

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.

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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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Chapter II

Ravenscourt Manor

Table of Contents | Start at the Beginning | Previous Part


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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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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Chapter I

A Most Dismal Prospect

Table of Contents

The worst part was not being allowed to scream.

If I’d had it my way, everyone from the hunch-backed pallbearers, to the long-faced priest, to the undertaker with his black hat and long coat would have gotten a scream in the face, just so they’d know exactly how I felt about the whole affair. Unfortunately, the proper bearing for funerals is non-negotiable: you are to shed tears (but not bawl), be respectful (but not dour), and stand up straight and tall throughout the long-winded preaching (all without being too stiff). Considering that, screaming is not generally considered appropriate, even when you think it should be.

Even when it’s a better option than breaking things.

Even when it’s your dad who’s died.

The undertaker had brought him into the house the previous evening, all readied for the Resting. So, while Mother and William dressed upstairs, I sneaked down to our black-curtained parlour to spend one last morning with my father.

The first thing I noticed were the Deathmarks. It was the first time I’d actually seen Deathmarks, but they weren’t difficult to recognize. Lines and circles covered Dad’s face and hands in a dizzying pattern of ash, drawn on his skin by the undertaker to make sure his spirit didn’t end up haunting our attic, to protect all of us from stray magic, and to keep Dad intact for the Resting. The sight of them made my skin crawl. The Marks weren’t anything like magicians’ spells, but they still held power. And more than anything else, the Marks were a certain sign that the mourning drapes, the coffin, the silence left behind in his absence – all of it was real. He was gone. And there was nothing any of us could do about it.

I didn’t even notice when William came downstairs – our creaky old steps never made so much as a single complaint for him: my brother was too small and sneaky. I only noticed when he stepped up next to me, lifting himself onto tiptoes to see into the casket. With a sigh, he fell back onto his heels and said:

‘It doesn’t look right, Abby.’

I gave him a look – the look, if you know what I mean. ‘Of course it doesn’t,’ I said. ‘He’s dead.’

Still, I turned back to Dad, lying there in the middle of our parlour, and I had to admit that William was right: despite the arrangements (and even ignoring the Deathmarks) there was something off about it – something that didn’t quite make sense. Dad’s hands lay folded across his chest: he looked more like a doll or some sort of waxwork than my father. Even sleeping, Dad was never so still.

Yet, somehow, we’d mistaken it for sleep at first. The morning he died had been traitorously bright and blue and beautiful, and waking late, I wondered why Dad wasn’t already up. He was usually up before the rest of us – examining plants in his study, or tending to the overgrown patch of yard out back that he insisted on calling the garden. But the house lay silent: he was nowhere to be found, and so at last, I knocked on his half-open door to find him pale and still and sleeping – or so I thought.

It wasn’t until Mother came by with a kiss to wake him that we knew.

The doctor was called, and the coroner, and a pair of pale-faced lawyers came by to talk to Mother about ‘necessary considerations’ – which I guess is what lawyers call all the paperwork they need to do when someone dies. All the while, I sat with William in our parlour, going over my Defences and helping him with his smoke bombs and watching the bustle of strangers pass through our house. And all the while, I wondered, how could any of this be real?

But finally, at the end of the day, after the coroner had satisfied himself with his poking and probing and Mother had talked to a priest about the funeral arrangements (she had needed to sell her favourite pearl earrings to pay for all of it), after the sun had set and the house had darkened, after even William had gone upstairs, I was left in our empty parlour to stare at the dying fire and wonder about a different question, the most obvious question, the one question that no one else seemed bothered about asking:

How did he die?

At least the Resting service gave Dad a chance to answer that question himself. At the Resting, Dad’s spirit would rise – ‘like light,’ Mother had told us – and Dad would be able to talk to us just once more before passing on. It was small comfort. After that, Dad would truly be gone – wiped away with the black ash on his forehead.

But it would still be a couple hours before then, and right now, William was fidgeting next to me, rocking onto his toes to look into the coffin once more. And then – before I could think to stop him, he reached in with one hand– 

I kicked him in the shin.

‘Ow!’

‘What do you think you’re doing?’

He glared at me sideways. ‘I was just removing his glasses!’

‘Oh.’

He removed the wire-rimmed spectacles from where they’d been set on our father’s nose, and folded them up, tucking them into the pocket of Dad’s jacket instead. ‘There,’ said William. ‘Now it doesn’t look so strange. He could be sleeping, if – ’

‘If we didn’t already know he was dead,’ I finished for him.

There was a knock at the door, and William stepped back from the coffin, hands disappearing into his pockets as Mother appeared at the top of the stair. She was wearing a veil of black lace to hide her face, which, as far as I can tell, is either supposed to make you feel less ashamed of crying your eyes out or make it easier for other people to ignore the fact that you’re crying your eyes out – not that Mother had let anyone catch her crying at all. Her red hair was pinned neatly under her hat, and as she caught sight of us at the casket, she tsked – though with the mourning veil, I couldn’t tell whether it was at William’s untucked shirt or my hair, which, unlike hers, was escaping its pins to stick up in all directions. 

She descended the stair to open the door. The undertaker and his pallbearers trooped into the house, exchanging a few short words with Mother. In less than a minute, Dad was closed into his casket, and the pallbearers carried him out of the house to the waiting carriage.

The world outside was withering and grey. We followed the black horses through our tiny town, the November wind tugging at our skirts and trousers and coats and doing nothing to improve my hair. Before too long, we were standing at the gate to the cemetery, engraved Wardmarks looming over us.

Like my father’s ashen Deathmarks, the cemetery Wardmarks traced an unreadable pattern of intertwined lines and shapes along the stones of the cemetery wall, meant to keep people from trespassing and disturbing the dead. Their power prickled against my skin even before we entered. Anyone crossing the Graveward without a good reason was certain to be caught – quickly, if they were lucky. If not, a night trapped in a Graveward had been known to drive people mad.

In any case, I’d never stepped foot in this cemetery before, as no one in our family had ever been buried in it – until now. Yet, even with the undertaker driving Dad’s coffin under the gate ahead of us, I wasn’t taking any chances – I twisted my silver ring in my fingers, Dad’s words on the Spiritual Defences echoing in my mind:

The First Defence is always with you, but this ring will help you remember it.

Immediately, warmth coiled through all my limbs, making the rainy air and the cold wind less harsh, as if I were feeling them through another layer of skin. If I did it right, the Defence would make my spirit a little dimmer, a little less obvious, blocking magicians from reading my mind and letting me avoid any unwanted attention from people or spells… or Wards.

Still, I needn’t have bothered. As we passed beneath the stone arch of the gate, the eerie prickling of the Graveward washed over me in a wave of goose bumps – like a twinge of magic. But it wasn’t magic of course, and within another moment, we were on the other side, the Ward’s power fading with a sigh. We weren’t trespassing, it had decided.

No, we were burying my father. It was yet another sign that this was all real.

The carriage pulled up next to a freshly dug grave. The priest was already waiting, and Mother ushered us to the other side, pressing bouquets of white flowers into our hands. The pallbearers pulled out the casket, the priest pulled out his Book, and the service began.

‘Today,’ wheezed the priest in a voice as old and cracked as his Book, ‘We mourn the passing of Lewis Crowe. He was a beloved husband and father and his death is truly a loss…’

The flowers grew heavy in my hands. As far as I knew, the priest in front of us had never met Father. How could he possibly know how much we’d lost?

‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live…’

He might as well have been speaking ancient Aegyptian for all I could understand. But I had to get through it for Dad’s Resting. That was all that mattered: the last chance I would ever have to speak to him, to say goodbye properly… if only the priest would get his sermon over with.

Finally, he set aside his Book. ‘While the body rests in the earth, the spirit rests in heaven,’ he said, pulling open the casket lid once more. I clutched the flowers. This was it. ‘Let the shackles of this world be unbound.’ He poured holy water onto Dad’s forehead and hands. The ashen Marks melted away into nothingness. For a moment, the world held its breath.

Nothing.

I waited for something, anything, but there was no sign of Dad’s spirit rising from his body, no prickle of magic or Marks, no light. Nothing but a choked silence, and the sickening clutch of disappointment in my chest.

I threw down the flowers and walked away.

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