The Ravenmaster

Raven
 As a child, the steely gaze of the raven fascinated Mark Taylor.
Heading home on warm summer evenings, he’d often stumble upon the shredded remains of a raven’s supper, strewn across the path like grisly confetti. With morbid fascination, he’d crouch down and inspect the tiny beaks and tails and claws while the birds serenaded him from the treetops.

As a man, Mark’s passion for ornithology and his exemplary war record formed the necessary steppingstones to the Tower of London. On his 50th birthday, he proudly accepted the role of Ravenmaster, servant to the Queen and guardian of eight extraordinary birds.

It is said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the British monarchy will fall. However, Mark remained sceptical of this and all other superstitions. Perhaps this was why he ignored the protests of his colleagues and named his newest raven Margaret, after Lady Margaret Pole. This poor old lady joined a long line of unfortunates who died in agony during the Tower’s dark and bloody history. Pole experienced a particularly gruesome death at the hands of a man with a blunt axe and a terrible aim.

Mark’s second imprudent act was to move the ravens from their traditional home in the shadow of the Wakefield Tower. Why keep their cages so hidden from view? He negotiated an alternative site by the side of Tower Green, one of the smaller lawns at the centre of the fortress. A photo by the raven house would now be the highlight for the hordes of school kids visiting the Tower. Who needed the Crown Jewels, when you could watch a raven ripping out a pigeon’s guts.

At first, the ravens appeared unsettled, perhaps disapproving of their vista overlooking the main execution site. But, after a few days, the birds’ flapping and shrill calls diminished, and they tucked into their blood-soaked biscuits with renewed relish. Mark could finally relax. He had started to doubt the wisdom of the move and didn’t want to be proved wrong.

Each morning, as the first glow of sunlight appeared over the ancient walls, Mark made the short walk from his flat to serve the bird’s breakfast. He addressed each of the birds by name, saluted them and praised them for their shining plumage. After opening the cage, he presided over the ravens’ march to freedom, whistling the tune of the British Grenadier as each one emerged. During the day, the ravens wandered at their leisure, gliding and swooping about the Tower or perched in their favourite spot, posing for the tourists.

Margaret grew rapidly, spending her days in the area by the scaffold, chasing the other birds away if they came too near, cawing and stabbing at them with her razor-sharp beak. Mark soon noted Margaret’s passion for violence. At roosting time, he made sure to round her up first, earning himself a few pecks in the process.

During the long winter evenings, Mark was a frequent guest at his neighbour's flat, Owen, a yeoman at the Tower for 25 years. On a bitter December night, he gratefully accepted Owen’s invitation of a lamb hotpot and a game of chess. Mark considered sharing something with Owen that puzzled him. It would depend on how the evening panned out,

“Are you sure it was wise to move the ravens?” asked Owen. They were sat in Owen’s lounge, relaxing with a glass of wine after Mark had lost three games to nil. “I’m sure there is a superstition about that somewhere.”

“Probably,” said Mark, taking a long sip of Chardonnay. He stretched himself out on Owen’s green sofa and relaxed. “I’ve lost count of how many superstitions you know about the Tower. You should write a book and sell it in the gift shop.” His face felt flushed from the alcohol and heat from the crackling fire in the grate. Sleeping pills would be superfluous tonight.

“I’ve considered a writing career on occasion,” said Owen. “Now take Nick Lawson, your predecessor - absolutely obsessed with raven’s lore. Kept the tourists hanging on his every word for hours. Even he used to claim those birds were unlucky, despite their reputation for protecting the Crown. I think it was to do with their penchant for snacking on the victims of the chopping block. There are several accounts of ravens plucking eyeballs from the sockets of some poor fellow’s head as it rolled across the grass.”

Mark took another sip of his wine. “Presumably, the head must have stopped rolling before the bird started eating it. Yes, I’ve read all that nonsense about ravens trying to steal men’s souls. I think I’m safe. Those cages may have blown the treasury budget, but even you must agree they’re much more attractive. The old ones stank to high heaven, especially in the mornings. I know I’m not skinny, but the doors were so narrow I had to squeeze in sideways. The birds haven’t suffered from the move, and I’ve a good rapport with them. Sunny sat on my arm for 20 minutes the other day, posing for photographs. I’m getting rather fond of them.”

“Even young Margaret? Last week I heard a boy screaming like Satan after she’d sliced open his finger with that vicious bill of hers. Blood dripping everywhere. The mother was livid.”

“I’ll put up some warning signs, shall I? Beware of the beak.’” Yes, I admit Margaret is a little harder to warm to. A right scavenger. She’ll attack anything that moves, man or beast.”

“Bit of a flighty character, is she?” Owen snorted. He kicked off his shoes, stuck his legs closer to the fire and wiggled his toes.

“Ha, ha, very funny. Look at the state of your socks - you’ve got a hole in them.”

Owen grunted. “What do you expect on a yeoman’s wages. My costume costs more than the pittance they pay us.”

Mark laughed in agreement. “Yes, but we live here rent-free. It’s a pretty big perk.”

“I suppose. Not that you spend much time in your flat, Mr Ravenmaster. You’re always around mine.”

“Your flat’s warmer; it’s got history and character. My apartment’s a 1970’s throwback.”

“I guess so.” Owen glanced up at the vaulted ceiling above him and smiled. “This type of place is as rare as hen’s teeth. I was lucky.”

“You’re telling me. But it’s not just my flat is the size of a shoebox—” Mark paused and stared into the fire. “Well, I can’t put my finger on it.”

“On what?”

“The atmosphere. It’s changed somehow, shifted since I arrived. It feels - oh, I don’t know, off. And it’s freezing, even when the heating’s cranked up. You’ll think I’m ridiculous.”

“No, not at all,” said Owen, leaning forward. “You are always telling me I’m far too superstitious for my own good. Maybe you’ve got yourself a ghost. After all, the Tower’s meant to be riddled with them.”

Mark raised himself off the sofa. “I should go. I’m sure I’m just being stupid. My apartment’s only fifty years old. Why would there be a ghost? I’ve not seen any spooks.” He paused, running his fingers over his bald patch. “It’s just a feeling of being watched. Late at night - when I’ve come back from settling the ravens.”

Owen got up and picked up his jumper from a chair. “Why don’t I come around now and see if I can sense anything? My mom always claimed she was psychic. You never know; it might have rubbed off on me.”

“Oh, come on then,” said Mark. “You can tell me I’m imagining it.”

***

Owen locked up and followed Mark along the gravel path to the flat. He shivered as the echoes of the Tower’s bloody past whispered in the moonlight. Even now, he could unnerve himself by imagining the eyes of traitors and heretics watching from the ancient and menacing turrets.

As they reached the flat, Mark fumbled with his keys and opened the front door. “You go first.”

Owen stepped into the hallway and turned left into the living room, running his fingers up the side of the wall to locate the light switch. Was something scratching at the wall at the back? Whatever the noise, the loud pop of the lightbulb filament drowned it out.

“I forgot to mention the dodgy electrics,” said Mark. “Stay there. I’ve got a flashlight in the kitchen.”

As he waited in the darkness, Owen wished he were back on his sofa in front of his fire. No wonder Mark liked coming round. There was undoubtedly a weird atmosphere in the flat - dingy and depressing. A small chink of light filtered in from a side window, and Owen peered through the gloom, half expecting to see someone sitting there waiting for him.

“Got it!” Mark reappeared holding a bulb, a flashlight and a small step ladder balanced in the crook of his arm. “Soon get this fixed.”  

The new bulb revealed a non-descript room dominated by an oversized sofa. A small coffee table stood next to it, stacked with a neat set of coasters and over in the corner sat a modest-sized TV. Mark’s flat was minimalist, even for a military man. There were no family photos, no knickknacks. The only book was on raven husbandry. Fitting for a man who was married to his job. The light dimmed and grew bright again, and Owen winced at the garish wallpaper, so unlike his tasteful heritage blue.

“See, there’s nothing here,” said Mark. “Now you can tell me I’m crazy.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Owen. “Although it does feel a bit chilly. Maybe it’s because my flat’s like a sauna. Mind if I look around?”  He shuddered and wondered why he’d decided to live in the most haunted location in London.

Walking back along the hallway, Owen hesitated before entering the inner sanctum of Mark’s bedroom. As he did so, he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. Something moved again, down by one edge of the bed. It was a shape, too hazy at first to identify. It stooped low and appeared to be searching for something. The form jerked upwards, turning, what he guessed, must be its head. And for a second, he saw a gash of a lopsided mouth and the bloodied remains of an eye.

Owen cried out, lurching backwards and slamming his shoulder into the door frame. His eyes screwed up tight from the sharpness of the pain, but as its intensity subsided, he forced himself to look back. The area by the bed was empty, but his sense of unease had returned, lingering like the scent of mouldering leaves. He had the unpleasant sensation that something had seen him.

A crash downstairs sent Owen running and stumbling into the kitchen. He found Mark staring at two pans lying on the floor tiles.

 “I was waiting in the living room, and this happened,” said Mark staring at the pans where they lay. “It sounded like they’d just somersaulted out of the top cupboard.”

 Owen knelt to inspect the pans. He touched one lightly and pulled his finger away. “It’s like they’ve just come off the hob. Did you see anything?”

“No, I was in the living room.  I heard a clatter and came rushing through to find the pans as you see them now.”

The colour drained from Owen’s face. “Look, why don’t you come back to mine and spend the night on the couch? You can’t stay here.”

“Don’t be daft. It’s fine. I told you, I don’t believe in ghosts, and I’m as psychic as a brick. It’ll probably be vibration from the tube trains at Tower Hill. Things rattle about now and again.”

“Have your pans flown out of the cupboards before?”

Mark shook his head, “Not like this, but I’ll be ok, I promise. You go off home now. Guess I was right about the strange atmosphere, but if there is something here, you’ll find me back on your doorstep.

Owen bit his lip. His chest still pounded from the shock of that shape in the bedroom. If Mark hadn’t seen anything, telling him about a ghostly intruder would only unsettle him. And precisely what had he seen? Should he just blame it on tiredness and booze? “Let’s talk about it in the morning,” he said. “I told you, you should never have moved those ravens.”

“Oh, nonsense. I’ve got a couple of talks on this week, but I’ll see you soon,” said Mark, showing Owen out. “I think we’ve had enough talk of spooks for one night.”

Owen reached his flat in record time. He locked and bolted his door and stood in front of his fire, trying to absorb the last bit of warmth. He closed his eyes, determined to block out the memory of his earlier encounter. “I reckon we’re a right pair of idiots,” he said to no one in particular before heading to bed.

***

Mark didn’t see Owen again for a few days, but on Friday, he noticed the birds had started acting up again, squawking and pecking and leaving half their biscuits uneaten. Not duly alarmed, he set them free and began his walking tours of the Tower grounds. He passed Owen several times during the day, noting his friend looked less dapper than usual. The first shadows of a beard peppered Owen’s face, and the dark circles around his eye made him look like an ageing rock star. “You ok, Owen?” he called.

A weak smile flashed across Owen’s lips, and he shook his head. “I didn’t sleep very well. I thought I heard knocking at my door about 3 am. Did you hear anything?”

“No, I was dead to the world. Probably just the wind, whistling around the towers,” True, he’d slept soundly, and despite Owen's misgivings, he must have misinterpreted the feelings in the flat. He was about to question Owen further when a tourist called him over, and Owen walked off in the other direction.

Later that evening, Margaret ignored Mark’s calls to return to her cage and only came down with the promise of a dead chick. Her savage mood remained, and Mark pulled his hand away just in time to miss a swipe from her beak. “You wouldn’t be the first raven to be replaced,” he scolded her, and she shook her head at him and croaked rudely. He checked the other birds were comfortable on their perches and started to retreat out the cage door when - wait! What was that wrapped around Margaret’s perch?

At first, he thought Margaret had picked up a piece of string, perhaps with a vague hope of making a nest. But as he unwound it, his face contorted with revulsion. It was hair, human hair, grey and straggly. The tip of the strand looked slimy and red as if ripped from somebody’s head. Mark’s supper threatened to make a reappearance, and he threw the string out of the cage. Where on earth had it come from?

“You birds will pick up anything.” he scolded, praying Margaret hadn’t scalped an old lady.

Mark slid the bolts back across the cage door, and as darkness descended, he pulled out his flashlight from his pocket. Shining the beam onto the path, he crossed Tower Green towards the site of the executioner’s block. As he reached the middle of the lawn, a mewling noise almost caused him to trip. He waved the flashlight about, expecting to see a cat on the path, toying with a mouse, but the lawn was deserted. A low growling behind him made him catch his breath. He spun around and peered into the darkness. The green was silent; the stillness was interrupted only by the distant call of a mournful owl.

With no obvious culprit in sight, Mark tried to ignore the hairs standing to attention on the back of his neck and quickened his step in the direction of his flat. He stopped when he reached Owen’s front door. Perhaps a quick glass of wine before bedtime would cheer them both up?

 His first knock received no answer. “Owen, it’s me,” he called, tapping again. He peered through the window and stepped back. The light upstairs switched off. Owen was obviously home, so why wasn’t he answering?

Soon fed up with waiting, Mark carried on to his flat, and after swallowing a couple of sleeping pills, the night passed uneventfully. He overslept, mercifully roused by a ring at the doorbell. “Just a minute,” he called and throwing on some clothes, he rushed to the door. The elusive Owen stood before him, holding a suitcase.

“That’s me done,” Owen said, his voice trembling. “All night, I heard it, knocking, sighing, and scratching at my window. Three nights in a row now, ever since I visited your flat. Owen drew out a long strand of grey hair from his pocket. “And look at this. When I woke up this morning, I found it lying on the pillow next to me.”

Mark took the hair from him and inspected it. “It’s similar to the strands I found wrapped around Margaret’s perch. Maybe it blew in through your window. Or perhaps it belongs to a long-haired breed of dog?”

“It looks human to me,” said Owen, tossing the hair to the floor. “And I always keep my windows shut. I can’t stand it any longer. I’m going to stay with my sister. Twenty-five years is long enough. Time to give someone else a turn.”

“But you said it’s only happened for three nights, and why would a ghost be bothering you?”

“It all started the evening I went into your flat,” said Owen, not meeting Mark’s gaze. “I didn’t say anything at the time, but I saw something in your room. Now I’m guessing it decided to follow me home. I’ve not seen it again, but I’ve sensed it standing next to me. Other times, it’s outside, tapping on my window.”

“Well, if you really think something is there…”

“Yes, I do. These kinds of entities feed on fear, and it’ll only get stronger. Goodbye, Mark, I’ve got a train to catch. I’ll write when I get to Cambridge.”

“What do you mean, entities? You’re not leaving for good, are you?”

But Owen turned and walked away without answering.

***

A week later, Mark was sitting enjoying a large bourbon and reading ‘Game of Thrones.’ He was about to finish the last chapter and put on his pyjamas when the distant cawing and screeching of the ravens made him spring from his chair. The cacophony continued, so he grabbed his flashlight and picked up his jacket. They’d be waking the whole Tower if he didn’t move fast.

Mark inhaled sharply as a cold blast of air hit him in the face. The hairs on his neck prickled as if someone watched him leaving his flat. He scanned the yard, expecting to see a neighbour roused by the noise, but saw no one.  Pulling up his collar, he headed over to the birdcages only to find the ravens undisturbed, croaking softly as they hopped about their perch. So, what had unsettled them only moments before?

Behind him, a low growling faded away almost as soon as he heard it. A stray animal must be disturbing the birds. But why couldn’t he spot it? Sweat trickled down his neck, despite the cold and the feeling of despair and desolation he’d experienced in his flat, returned. His whole body shivered, and for a moment, his brain flooded with memories of the desert. Then, he was back in the chaos of retreat, running past the mutilated body of his sergeant.

“Pull yourself together, man,” he muttered. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

Still moving up and down along their perches, the ravens eyed Mark with black, wary eyes. Their silence suggested whatever had disturbed them had gone. So why did his legs feel so weak? He straightened his spine, threw back his shoulders and marched back to his flat.

Once safe inside, he locked the door and snapped on every light in his house in succession. After three double bourbons, his breathing had slowed, but as he finished his glass, the bird’s alarm calls resumed. Pulling his jacket back on, it took a force of will to step back outside. There must be a rational explanation.

Raising his collar and keeping his head down, Mark walked briskly towards the cages refusing to stare too deeply into the shadows advancing around him. Reaching the green, he stopped in his tracks. Footsteps padded across the ground towards him, too loud to be made by an animal. Had one of his colleagues come out to investigate the source of the disturbance?

Then Mark saw her, an old woman, running barefoot towards him. Grey straggly hair splayed out over hunched shoulders; a black dress splattered with blood. Two empty eye sockets punctured her face, yet somehow, he knew she could sense his presence. A sickening dread swept over him as the hag’s gaping and rotting mouth roared in an explosion of rage. She was coming for him.

Mark’s body felt numb, refusing to obey.  Adrenalin pumped through his veins, urging him to escape, but he could only watch in terror as the woman continued her collision course towards him. In the seconds before she reached him, Mark’s movements mercifully returned. He threw his arms across his face for protection, his flashlight clattering to the ground as he did so. When no impact came, Mark staggered backwards, gasping for breath. The woman had disappeared. He retrieved his flashlight and swept the beam across the empty lawn.

The Ravens continued their frantic chorus, screeching and flapping at the bars of the cage as if desperate to escape. Mark ran over to their cage, speaking to them in low and calming whispers, trying to soothe them. Soon the birds settled back on their perches, and their cawing grew softer. Yet, something still jarred. The ravens kept staring at the same spot at the bottom of the cage. He followed their gaze.

A grey figure crouched in the corner facing away from him, groping around and sifting through the sawdust. Good God, had someone sneaked in when he’d closed the cage earlier? He threw open the locks of the cage and cried out as an unseen force pushed him inwards through the door. As his knees hit the dirt, he heard a metallic scrape as the cage bolts fastened behind him. Mark’s screams merged into the shrieks of the ravens as the shape in the corner slowly uncurled itself.

***

Mark’s colleagues discovered his body lying face-up on the floor the following day. His shredded features bore an uncanny resemblance to his birds’ most favourite treats.  The ravens, unharmed apart from a few missing feathers, sat on their perches above him, calm and well-fed. Save for one. Young Margaret remained sitting on Mark’s chest and refused to be moved. She was busy devouring the sweet jelly of her master’s eye and had no intention of relinquishing her prize.

Naturally, the incident was hushed up, and Mark’s death was recorded as a heart attack. Royal Palaces declared the cages unsafe, removed them and sent them for scrap. The ravens returned to their former home by the Wakefield Tower, and the Palace appointed Mark’s replacement soon after.

Like his predecessor, the new Ravenmaster remained sceptical of tales of the supernatural. Although he could never explain one strange little thing. As he let out the ravens on dark winter mornings, he swore he heard the tune of the British Grenadier as if whistled by unseen lips.

* * *

 

 

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