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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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.

Chapter II

Ravenscourt Manor

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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.

Keep Reading


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:

And if you happen to be feeling particularly generous, we’d all appreciate your support via Buy Me A Coffee through the button below.

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