*Sorry this is so short. We’re preparing for the older kid’s 21st birthday tomorrow.*
*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. *
A Matter Of Duty
Nell felt the magic from upstairs. It rang in her ears as something only a little less loud than the explosion that had left the room downstairs coated in glittering bits of magical dust, and which had forcibly bent the foundation of the house and thrown a grown man across the garden.
This explosion was more subdued, and came, inescapably, from the upstairs. But it was still loud. She was on her feet, from the kitchen table where she and Grandma had just sat down to continue – now changed – the talk the explosion had interrupted.
Grandma had just said, “You are an adult, and your own woman. I can’t tell you what to do.” Which of course, meant that Nell was too young to cross the street without someone holding her hand and that Grandma was very well about to tell her what to do, when this second explosion came.
On her feet, running towards the stairs, Nell realized, halfway up, that it had not been an explosion but an implosion – not a boom but a paff, as something vanished, something else flowed in to take its place. And it couldn’t be just the disappearance of a man, or even two. No, something large had gone to cause that sound.
She slowed her steps over the unstable part of the house. She heard Grandma behind her, but it didn’t bear stopping, not now.
The door to the room they’d given to Seraphim – had Duke ever been housed in such a ramshackle and casual way – was standing open and creacking softly through and fro as though caught in a strong wind.
It did not surprise Nell, as she reached the doorway, that the room was empty – of at least that it was empty of the two men. The furniture remained there, in its proper places – but she didn’t go in further than the doorway because a few inches in front of her nose, filling the entire space of the room, what looked like fiery dustmotes flew, sparkling and dancing. She blinked at them recognizing the markers of a very powerful spell, a shell-spell.
Someone or something had set a spell on this entire room, a spell that filled the room to the inner wall. Those spells were usually only built for important reasons, for a place where someone must do something. It was a compulsion spell on place, not person. And it was difficult to set, and could only be set by someone present.
That didn’t disturb her as much as the feeling – as she watched the motes of light slowly fade – that she knew very well who had set this. There should not be a taste to magic, but there was: feel and a sense of the hand that had created a spell. It was akin to recognizing the hand that had formed letters, or the hand that had mixed a recipe.
She could not point to anything exactly, but she’d been near the man, and watched him create spells, and the spell created here was unmistakably Sydell’s.
How could Sydell have come here? How gained access. True, she and Seraphim had been over the fields in the morning, talking while she showed him the places of her childhood. Where grandma might have been was anyone’s guess, but this place was defended and guarded. Grandma had done so from Nell’s earliest days. Certainly she would not let anyone near who might be a danger. And Sydell had given off vibrations of danger from the moment Nell had met him.
She squinted around the room, without going in. The spell should be spent, and in fact, the glitter of it was dying by the moment, but you could never be sure. The spell had been set to cause someone to do something, and once someone had done something, it had slowly faded. That much was certain, that much not a problem to imagine. It was also no great stretch to know what the spell had caused the men to do. The two of them – or more likely Seraphim, carrying Gabriel along – had transported out of here in haste, probably somewhere the compulsion told them to go. That much was sure.
But if that had been the whole of it, there were other ways of doing it, subtler or stronger, all the way up to whatever had happened to Marlon. This was something else, something more targeted. No one did a full shell spell unless there were a sequence of actions they wanted someone to perform. They were strong enough that often actions caused by them were repeated by the victim’s ghost for eternity. It was said they were responsible for half the hauntings in Avalon.
She looked around the room. The spells were by definition dark and proscribed magic, since they robbed the victim of choice. They were often set to cause someone to do murder, but not only couldn’t she imagine the men murdering each other – there was limit to what even a shell spell could cause you to do – but she couldn’t see any blood stains on the floor. And there hadn’t been enough time, since Gabriel had come up for one strong and healthy man to strangle the other or vice versa. No. That was not what the compulsion had been. Then what?
Perhaps what had been intended had been precisely that the men should transport out. She suspected on Earth it might be hard for someone of Avalon to physically seize and transport someone out. And the Darkwaters were both very powerful.
But something more there would be. Something to take along, perhaps? She looked around the room again, this time for belongings. Seraphim had arrived in this world in his dressing gown, now much mended and tattered, a pair of underwear which had made her grandmother marvel at the cunning arrangement of tying ribbons and grin in amusement at the lace with which people of Avalon bedecked all small clothes of the gentry, male and female.
The only other thing he’d brought, in the pocket of his gown, was his father’s pocket watch, which she’d understood had some magic properties and which he and Gabriel used in their rescue missions.
She looked towards the dressing table where the watch had been, and it was gone.
And she stood there realizing the enormity of this: the two men whom Sydell had been trying to entrap from the very beginning; the men who’d been spied on, coerced, and finally accused falsely of murder so that the Duke’s property could be impounded, had left this house carrying the one thing that Seraphim had brought into it, beyond his clothes. They’d left under strong compulsion set by the same person who’d been spying and conspiring against them.
The realization dawned and could no longer be avoided that the whole plot against them had been to seize this watch. Everything: their destroyed lives the upended routines and livelihoods of all of Seraphim’s retainers had been to get their hands on this pocket watch.
But that meant, surely, that the watch was not a normal watch. Petty thieves and burglars were not that hard to get in Avalon, and she was something of the kind in a much superior package – or had been while she was involved in Sydell’s schemes. And she’d never been told to find it and seize it. So the watch must have anti-theft spells built into it, and probably could only follow someone of Darkwater name. And so this entire monstrous plot had been hatched to get hands on it.
She took a deep breath, blinked. And carefully, she thought the one word: idiots.
And then a sentence assembled in her head, as if someone else were thinking it, only the someone else was also her. She said it, in a whisper, as it came to her, “This has gone far enough.”
She found she was out of the doorway, into the halway, and across tot he sound part of the house, where her room stood. “This has gone far enough.”
Grandma came in as she was packing her clothes in the sturdy backpack she’d used for her youthful travels, before college. Not many clothes, but a change of underwear, a t-shirt, another pair of jeans, her first aid kit.
And wouldn’t you know it, Grandma said again, and in exactly the same voice, “I will not tell you what to do, you’re an adult.”
Of course, that meant she was about to tell Nell what to do, and she did.
“All the intruders are gone,” Grandma said. “It is all to no point for you to go chasing after them like a mad woman. You’re back home. I had never expected you to come back, but now you’re home. What need do you have to go involve yourself in the affairs of a world with which we have nothing to do.”
“Not now,” Nell said, knowing Grandma would understand, as she did when Nell was very young, that what Nell meant was “no lecture now.” Then she added, “Can you get me a couple of bottles of water and a package of crackers or cookies? I might need to go into fairyland.”
Grandma’s eyes grew huge. “Nell,” she said.
“I have to go. I’m responsible,” Nell said.
“You are not responsible. He is a grown man and from another culture, and I know what time traveling romances say, but– ”
“No. Not that. I didn’t mean I’m responsible for Seraphim. Seraphim is in trouble, yes. I might be to blame for it, yes, for things I’ve done to bring this about, but that is not it. And romance doesn’t enter into it. Oh, I… I might… I have feelings for him, but that is besides the point,” she added, as Grandma had been about to add that Nell was half-gone in love with the man. “He’s not for me, on Earth or on Avalon. On Avalon because if I go there, I’ll be the princess and my marrying a matter of public policy and planning. On Earth because he could never come here and just be happy with me, and that is part of the reason I must go in and fix this. Seraphim is not just Seraphim, he is the Duke of Darkwater and the head of the second most magical house in the realm. Whether he lives or dies, and whether he’s tainted by scandal or not, affects not just him, not just his family, but people who work for him, people who depend on him and everyone who interacts with them. Who holds power over his house affects even more, as they’re one of the houses responsible for the security of the royal family. The man is not a man, he’s an institution, one of the threads that holds up the state-tapestry of Avalon. That I must save, restore, and make sure it’s in his hands and not in much worse ones, and– ”
“And?” Grandma said.
“And I must go back for the same reason,” she said. “Whoever has used evil magic to remove the Darkwaters from here, is also the person – or one of the people – who removed me from my birth parents. They want power, and it is essential they not get it. They are not good people.”
Grandma had looked old, then, really old. Nell realized that this was when Grandma had accepted Nell would be gone again, and for good. It didn’t matter that Nell had realized it at the same time.
Nell took off her clothes and threw on her prom dress which, fortunately modest, could pass for an afternoon gown in Avalon, even if an odd one.
When Grandma came back with a box of ritz and two bottles of water, Nell asked, “Was anyone here, today, in this room.”
“Only the ducting man,” Grandma said. “He came to clean the ducts, like he does every fall.”
“Was he… the same man?”
“Yep, Andrew, from the air conditioning place.”
Nell only nodded. No reason to complicate the picture or make Grandma aware of what had happened. She knew Andrew. Had known him for years. Either he’d been replaced, not an easy thing to do, or…
But she shut her mind to that thought, and instead kissed Grandma gently on the cheek and told her, “I’ll be back,” without saying it would be for only a little while.
Then Nell hefted her backpack, stood in the middle of her room, and built her transport spell.
The cold of the in-betweener singed her for only a moment. And then she was on the other side. But she didn’t know where the other side was. She stood on a hill, overlooking a desolate plain, and yet it was hard to see clearly for a sort of grey, amorphous fog.
From somewhere at the bottom of the hill came a gloating voice, male, and awful, making her skin crawl, “So my darling nephew has come back!”
And then there was the snarling of dogs and the high pitched scream of a young girl. Nell ran towards the disturbance.