*This is the Fantasy novel I’m posting here for free, one chapter every Friday. If your conscience troubles you getting something for free, do hit the donate button on the right side. Anyone donating more than $6 will get a non-drm electronic copy of Witchfinder in its final version, when it’s published.
There is a compilation of previous chapters here all in one big lump, which makes it easier to read and I will compile each new chapter there, a week after I post. When the novel is completed and about to be edited the compilation page will probably be deleted.
Oh, this is in pre-arc format, meaning you’ll find the occasional spelling mistake and sentence that makes no sense. It’s not exactly first draft, but it’s not at the level I’d send to a publisher, yet. *
For previous chapters, look here: http://accordingtohoyt.com/witchfinder/
Prisoner and Guards
Caroline couldn’t think and couldn’t focus. Not that she wanted to focus. As the ground seemed to speed beneath her, and she saw the clods and small stones struck up by the hooves just an armspan away from her, she was all too aware only the centaur’s strong arm, its tight pressure beneath her breasts, kept her from falling down and being trampled.
She closed her eyes, but it was impossible to ignore her situation. She smelled horse and human sweat commingled, she felt the jarring pound of the centaur’s hooves beneath. After a while she heard yelling, and then the hooves stopped and the movement, and the human arm let go.
Caroline opened her eyes in time to stumble a little, then recover her ballance. She stood on a clearing, filled with dozens of centaurs, clustering round her on all sides.
The centaur who had brought her pushed her forward, a hand on her shoulder, and said, “I have brought her, you see. At the council’s command.”
Around her there were many centaurs. All of their human bodies were swarthy, heavily muscled, and her first impression of them was of a menacing group, particularly as they moved restlessly, their hooves stomping the ground, and calling out words she only partly understood.
“In the sacred ground of our ancestors–”
“The announced one–”
“In this dire hour.”
They spoke now one and now the other, their voices louder and more resonant than normal men’s voices, their heads tossing – just like horse’s heads, she thought, in shock, even if they were atop men’s trunks and necks – their long dark hair sweeping and becoming even more disarrayed. They had overgrown stubble or outright dark beads. Some wore necklaces of what appeared to be human teeth.
Caroline wanted to run, but she could imagine this troop of centaurs following her – hunting her down. She swallowed hard and felt sweat prickle at her eyes. Her throat was so parched she feared she might not be able to speak, but she had to speak. If she couldn’t run, she had to do something to prevent these creatures–
To prevent the creatures what? She could remember, vaguely, from her classical mythology and history that drunken centaurs could get thoroughly unpleasant, in the way of unpleasantness that mama would say Caroline shouldn’t know about until her wedding night – and perhaps not even then. But Caroline had heard the women of the nearby village talk, and some of the maids too. And besides, the home farm had livestock. And Caroline was no slower of mind than she should be. So she had a pretty clear idea of how unpleasant and in exactly what way centaurs could get.
Though she wondered if it was exact enough to fend it off. She should have asked Gabriel. Of all of the adults in the house, he was the only one not likely to tell her she was being unladylike or to turn her mind to more appropriate thoughts. Michael wouldn’t have told her that either, but he knew no more than she did, and besides, frankly, Michael was not very interested in what went on between centaurs or women. Or men and women for that matter. If it didn’t have gears, he was simply not much interested in it.
Which brought her to here and now, and whatever the centaurs meant to do, and the fact she was quite – quite – powerless to defend herself. Except by trying to do what mama called showing herself a lady and therefore beyond their touch. She looked at those large hands, at the end of bulging muscular arms, and realized not a few held knives or lances. She swallowed again, then planted her feet and spoke loudly, “I am Caroline Ainsling, the sister of the Duke of Darkwater, and I want to know what you want with me?”
They moved. At first she wasn’t sure how. There was just more stomping of feet, and more galloping, and sounds like a stable. Smells like a stable too, which made her wonder how human centaurs were, and how animal. Around the edge of the clearing where the centaurs were assembled, two of them galloped in circles.
“Quiet!” It was a clarion call of a voice, a voice such as, unleashed in a square in London could have called the whole city to attention. Caroline trembled, thinking the yell directed at her, but then the voice said, “We are being rude to the maiden, and fools to seek her help but not tell her what we wish. Agapios, Thanos, cease your mad galloping. If you insist on behaving like colts, you shall be excluded from the councils of men.”
To Caroline’s surprise, the two madly galloping centaurs stopped, and one of them lowered his head like a schoolboy caught at fault. It occurred to her that despite their golden skins, the long, dark hair, they were very young. If they’d been horses, their horse-body would look like a colt’s not fully grown into its height, and if they’d been humans, the human body would have looked too gangly, too thin, not muscular enough. The sweaty faces were devoid of stubble, and one of them wore his hair pulled back from the forehead with a bit of ribbon, an affection that, for some reason, made him look younger. She almost smiled at him, then remembered the situation, and that she definitely shouldn’t encourage centaurs with untoward friendliness, and tried to make her face impassive.
“Caroline, Daughter of the Duke, Maiden,” the man who had first spoken, spoke again, and then, to Caroline’s eternal shock, fell on his front knees in front of her, and looked up at her with anguished eyes that didn’t look any less scared for regarding her from under beetling brows. “We need your help. My son has fallen in a snare, and you’re the only one who can save him.”
Caroline looked again at the powerful bodies around her. “I’m the… only one? But you…”
The centaur shook his head. “No. It is not a human snare, nor one such that can be defeated by the hand of a centaur, or the force of our arms. It is a snare of the mind, a snare of the soul, and we are powerless against it. We felt your nearness, and we went to get you. We don’t know if your potency will hold against the local magic, but we hope so.”
Her … potency? Had they lost their ever lasting mind? And where were the centaur women? Unpleasant ideas formed in Caroline’s mind, and she drew herself up very tall – or as tall as her five feet would allow – and spoke in a way that, she hoped, would do the Duchess credit. “I do not have the pleasure of understanding your meaning.”
“It is my son, Akakios,” the centaur said. “He has been captured.”
“Captured by whom? Where?”
There was movement again, this time towards her. No. The circle that had been all around moved, so in front of her there were only trees and no centaurs. The centaur who’d knelt before her – the same one who’d brought her here? – now stood beside her, his hand on her shoulder. Impossible not to follow as he walked forward, though he neither pushed nor pulled her.
He said only “Caroline, maiden!” and at that moment, they reached the edge and she could see through the trees. She’d thought they were in a large clearing, but the clearing ahead was twice as large. From the center of it, suspended on what seemed to be a silver chain, that attached soemwhere in the distance, was what looked like a crystal bird cage. For a very large bird. A very, very large bird. Only there was no bird in it, but a young centaur.
His hair was in more disarray than that of his congeners. His hands were clasped on the translucent bars of his cage. And his human chest and horse body were crisscrossed with bloody slashes.
He raised his head, as if sensing her scrutiny and looked at her with eyes that were as green as leaves in spring, and that looked like he’d been crying.
Then she saw them: Around the clearing, as though on guard, galloped many unicorns.
They were large, white, glimmering, beautiful. It took her a moment to realize that the tips of their horns were stained with blood.