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.

To be continued…


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.

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.