*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. *
Seraphim came out of the basement with Nell, into the dark, soft night air. There was a smell that reminded him of when he went to the Darkwaters’ home farm: rich soil and plants and something indefinable that said living things were growing all around.
He took a deep breath of the air. There was something different too, something he couldn’t define. He thought it was because this place was in the North American colonies. Though Seraphim had always meant to see them some day, it required money. Inside the world traveling to a different continent was hampered by matters of magic that made any jump across water difficult. So it had to be done the old way, by ships, or the new way by carpetships, and either kind cost money and, more importantly time, which the head of his family could ill spare.
“You’re very quiet,” Nell said. And he wanted to think of her as the royal princess, not the least because that would establish their positions firmly and help him discipline his mind and heart. But somehow, slim in those jeans that he could never think were women’s attire, she seemed whimsical and young. At some level, she reminded him of the Shakespeare boys playing girls playing boys. Not that there was anything boyish about her rounded figure – or that he wanted it to be – but he thought she looked like a young girl trying to pass as a boy, a child playing comedy.
Hard to associate that with the court, and high birth and the pomp and circumstance of the occasions in which he’d met the royal family.
He said, in a contained voice, “Well, you’ll agree that there is an awful lot to think about?”
“Doubtless,” she said, but now she’d turned out to look at him. In the dark, illuminated only by residual light from the windows of the house, and the far more distant moon, her face looked like something glimpsed on a crystal ball, when the image was just solidifying: there was the pure line of the jaw, the straight nose, her dark eyes looking up at him, anxiously, and her lips, a little quirked, as though demanding he account for whatever thoughts or plans he might have. She frowned at him, gathering those straight dark eyebrows over her nose. “But you’re too silent. I wonder–” She paused, as if she’d cut her own thought off. “Is it their arrival?” She gestured with her head towards the basement.
The trained response, “madame, I don’t have the pleasure of understanding you” was upon his tongue, but he swallowed it, and instead said, trying to use the informal, almost familiar tone he’d been using with her before, “I’m not sure what you mean?”
“You’ve been easy with me,” she said. “And not the duke, as you were recovering. I wondered, you know, because I’ve always seen you– That is, I get the feeling there are two of you, the duke and who you really are. And I think you’ve been yourself while you’ve been alone with me in the world. I suspect it’s someone only your family knows, and probably not all of them. Now you’re the duke again. You’ve gone elsewhere, closed yourself off. I can’t read your thoughts in your expressions. Is it because they arrived? Surely it must be Mr. Elfborn’s arrival, because your brother… he’d know you.” But she hesitated a little when she said it.
And Seraphim realized that she was right. After thinking about what he hadn’t done and what he must do, out there, in the underground room, he’d come to believe he must indeed act as the Duke of Darkwater and the head of his family. He cleared his throat. “No, it’s just…” He took a deep breath. “I realized I’ve been a fool, letting myself get pushed around by circumstance, and never, never doint anything to find what is at the bottom of all this. I’m a witchfinder. That’s what my father called what we do. We find the witches and the shape shifters before those who would harm them do. And here, like an idiot, after all this time rescuing people from just the sort of thing that has been visited on me and my family, I’ve let myself be caught in a trap, and I never tried to fight it.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “To give you your due, Your Grace, you were wounded and only half conscious through most of it.” Then she smiled, taking the sting from the formal address. “Not that you’d ever accept it, would you? I think you’re one of those who drives yourself harder than anyone else could drive you.”
He made his features impassive, because if he didn’t he was going to tell her just how hard it had been, just how early things had fallen on his shoulders. Instead he said, “Father was never truly reliable. I think I– No. perhaps I do him an injustice. At least half of his persona was to hide his work as witchfinder. But there might be more to it. I think his personality– He was very sociable, very… very joyful and full of life. The problem is that he was neither cut out to be duke nor to be a father. Oh, he was a good man, I think, in a way, in the sense he cared for those in the family, and he was forgiving of weakness, which he would be. But he was not… Good at sustained effort. I think I took over the accounts at fourteen. Just watching the money flow out. And the loans Father took for carriages and horses and clothing…” He shook his head again. “And gifts for his mistresses. I remember being very puzzled at all the jewels he bought, when mother never wore hardly any jewels.” He shrugged. “So you see, someone has to drive me hard. I have to be reliable, and I have to be dependable, because there are people depending on me. If I let myself go, I could easily become like my father. I’ve let myself go in this whole matter, and look what a mess I made.”
“I don’t think you could become like your father,” she said, and her voice was soft, looking up at him. “Truly, I don’t. Not if you mean his being irresponsible and letting go of things enough to hurt his family and let his duty devolve on you. I do think you could be easier, and take more joy in life, but I think you’re also afraid of it. You shouldn’t be. The duke is well enough, and I’m sure he’s a fine man. But I rather liked Mr. Ainsling these few days, getting confused about how to use stoves, and struggling with safety razors.”
“You like me incompetent?” he said, only half teasing.
“No. I like that you can laugh at yourself when things go severely awry.”
He’d never be able to justify it. There was no justification. He was the worst of cads, the lowest of rakes, the most profoundly dishonorable of men. But what was flesh and blood to do, when he she stood on her tip toes, and put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him?
It would have been well enough, he thought, after all, if she’d just kissed his lips.
Or just kissed his cheek. But the thing was, first she kissed his cheek, an hesitant peck and quite appropriate even between cousins as distant as they were. So he relaxed a little, as she looked up at him, her eyes dark and deep in the moonlight.
She said, in a little raspy voice, “Don’t go indulging in any heroics, please? Not without me, at least.”
He laughed a little at her rider, thinking that if he was going into danger, risking taking the royal princess along was like dragging a tasty lamb with him, while going to hunt wild wolves. He was still laughing when she said, “Oh, I like you like that,” and stood on tiptoes and kissed his lips.
It was akward. Odd, his lips still being parted in laughter and his being caught by surprise. He’d kissed women before, albeit not many. He’d kissed Honoria, very properly, when she’d accepted his proposal. This was all different and difficult. But when her lips touched his, his body had ideas of its own and before Seraphim could make use of his not inconsiderable will power, his arms had surrounded her gracile form, enveloping her, and pulling her against him so hard that she let out a little squeak. Even that didn’t stop him, nor hitting her nose by accident as he drew her closer. His lips still found hers, and her lips were warm, with just a little edge of cold from its having been colder in the basement room.
She tasted of vanilla and tea, and when their mouths met, it was not as though they were exploring, but as though they’d kissed already a thousand times, and now he’d come home, he’d found his proper place, and kissing Nell was where he was supposed to be, and what he was supposed to do, lifting her off her feet by the strength of his arms and feeling her heart beat frantic against him – or his heart beating madly against her. It was as though they were not separate anymore but one. More, it was as though they were always supposed to be one.
And then the light came on, sudden and harsh.
They jumped apart so quickly that it felt to Seraphim, much as being lifted out of a full dream into the awakening light of day. He stood where he’d been, or a few feet away, cover his mouth with the back of his hand, at the same time wanting to preserve the sensation of the kiss, and to hide it from other eyes, as though the kiss were a physical thing, there to be discovered, and turning in startled alarm to see… Nell’s grandmother in the doorway.
“Are they settled,” she asked. “Did you solve the problem? Who are they?”
And Nell, looking ruffled, her hair all on end, saying, “yes, yes. They’re the duke’s half brother and… and a friend. I’ll tell you all about it,” and starting to walk towards the door.
Seraphim was going to burn in hell. He was going to burn in hell for taking advantage of an innocent, which she was. Oh, he had few illusions about her relationship with Antoine, but that had been different. She had thought herself a woman of Earth then, and the rules were different. The same could be said for her lack of shock at Gabriel’s and Marlon’s relationship. Seraphim hadn’t yet decided if he liked that or hated it. After all, a wife who didn’t swoon at the meniton of the more carnal parts of existence might be very useful when it came to discussing things men dealt with every day. It might even keep a man from straying if his wife was his best friend, and if he could discuss everything with her.
But there he stopped short, because that was where he’d earned hell. He was thinking of Nell and wife in the same breath. But she was not his wife. She could not be his wife. She would not be his wife, even if he got his heart’s desire. Future queens don’t marry penniless dukes. They can’t, particularly not in days when the health of the kingdom is at stake. PARTICULARLY not when the queens have been raised abroad and therefore must be more perfect and unimpeachable than ever normal princesses were. Any idea of love between him and Nell was forlorn and he should never have encouraged it – and to give him his due her kiss had taken him completely by surprise. She must already have perfected the princely art of showing nothing in her face of what she felt. Either that or, of course, she was quite oblivious to the arts of flirting in Avalon and therefore had neglected to give him the right signals. He considered that a moment, then nodded. Most of what she did, normally, would brand her a desperate hussy in Avalon. Only she had not behaved that way in Avalon. But one thing was knowing what to avoid, and another what to show to ensnare someone. And that last, he’d bet, she knew not. And it was as well, since the marriage of future queens was not a matter of romancing, but a matter of state craft.
All this came across his mind, as Nell went towards the door, up the creaking porch steps. He was ready when she turned back to look over her shoulder at him and said, hesitantly, “Seraphim? Are you–”
“I need to go up to my room for a moment,” Seraphim said, and it was even true, curse Earth clothing. He needed time to compose his mind and calm his racing heart, before he could face Nel and her grandmother, and answer any questions the older lady might have – no, would have, if he had grown to know her inquisitive nature, and he had.
He walked past them, up the stairs quickly, refusing to look and see if Nell’s grandmother was staring narrowly at him, though he suspected she was. He tried not to hear their conversation either, though some of the words reached him. Fortunately they made next to no sense. He didn’t think that Marlon and Gabriel were particularly happy – and what did their state of euphoria have to do with anything? Or be said with such a tone as though it explained anything.
Down the hallway, into his room, and Seraphim closed the door, then took deep breaths. No, forget going back down and explaining things. If he saw Nell again, he might lose control of himself yet again. It was the oddest thing. He’d never even felt like losing control with Honoria. No, perhaps that was not strange, since Honoria was an arranged match. A match he’d thought his father wanted. But he’d not felt like losing control with that opera dancer that he’d met while he was still at Eton, and whom he was sure was a prime article of virtue. Oh, he’d kissed her, and he’d have done more, if he’d had more money and not been a callow school boy whom she indulged in a kiss for a lark only. But he’d not felt as if he were plunging into the ocean, and over his head, and not in control of events.
Seeing Nell again might not be a good idea.
And then there was the crazed Earth code. Nell would think she was supposed to go and brave danger alongside him, missing the fact that by being female she was more exposed, more vulnerable, and despite how much she might have worked for Sydell – Sydell was definitely on the list of people that Seraphim would like a long talk with – not as equipped for magical battle as she might think. And yet if Seraphim gave her half a chance, she’d insist on doing as much as he did. If not more.
His breath was now calm, and his mind clearer. He looked around the room. He couldn’t take more appropriate clothes, because he had none. In a way, his very clothes would proclaim he’d been out of world, but he couldn’t go gallivanting around Avalon in a dressing gown, either. He’d take what he had on, and steal beg or borrow more appropriate attire once he got there. If he read the situation aright, he was already so deep in trouble that he would hardly get in more.
He considered the pocket watch that had been his father’s, and bit at the tip of his tongue. He was starting to think there was some spell or tracking attached to that watch. For a year it had told him whom to rescue – at least if he used other instruments for more precise tracking. But recently it had sent him on wild goose chases or led him to traps. He thought someone must have sneaked in a spell beneath the reliable shell of the watch. How anyone could do that, who didn’t have Darkwater blood – the watch being wrapped up in the family and the blood – he didn’t know. Then again, if the rumors about papa were even half true, Gabriel was just the only half brother who lived with the family – not the only one, or even rare. No, Darkwater blood might not be an obstacle, and magic didn’t distinguish between legitimate and not. Only human law did that.
He pursed his lips, then thought that here, in this house, in the heart of a world most magicians couldn’t brave, the watch would be safe enough. He’d leave it here, and come back for it.
It was going to be hard enough to transport without taking a possible tracking device along with him.
Carefully, he built his spell. It was doubly difficult because he was transporting from the madhouse, and because he must keep it from the notice of the other magic users in the house.
Slowly, carefully, he stacked the symbols and the thoughts, the links and the power. Sometimes he felt as though he were trying to move a mountain.
By the time it was ready, his shirt was glued to him with sweat.
He closed his eyes and stepped into the portal. It seemed to him at the same moment an explosion shook him, but when he stepped from inbetween, he was in an Avalon street – or rather in an alley which felt and smelled like London.
Just ahead of him, someone turned to look at him, and for a moment he thought it was Honoria. Same pale blond hair, same oval face. But then he realized that the face facing him, in total astonishment, was male.
And as the person tried to focus his eyes, with visible effort which – judging from the smell coming from him was due to gin – Seraphim recognized him.
“Damme, Darkwater,” Honoria’s immediately older brother Jonathan said. “Where did you come from like that and scare a man like that? And why are you wearing such odd togs?”