*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. *
Between The Dogs And A Hard Place
“Only passing through my Lord,” Gabriel boomed back at the leering sort of voice that taunted him. “I want nothing of yours, and only what’s mine.”
“What’s yours, I understand, is my crown?”
“No, but only those mortals you keep captive here which are bound to me by blood or affection.” As he spoke, he continued fighting. There was to him a sort of nimble lack of concern, a quickness of feet and wrist, as he cut at the Hell Hounds.
Caroline, beside him, tried to match his ability and so busy was she that she didn’t realize for a moment that Akakios hadn’t joined them. While he could stand, it was obvious his forelegs pained him, and he could do no more than defend himself.
There was a long silence, and then the voice that Caroline couldn’t identify boomed again, but said a word that Caroline couldn’t understand, a word like liquid fire that seemed to scrape the senses as it fell. Behind her Akakios made a sound of outrage, but to Caroline’s surprise, Gabriel laughed. His hair had come loose from its binds, and flowed around his head like brambles growing in a wild place. Somehow it made him look more elf than human, and his laugh was also more elf than human, seeming to hit some places out of her hearing range.
“Kind of you,” Gabriel said. “But that is no offense. I might as you say be a human-lover and in thrall of the low magic creatures. Since I intend to live my life among them, I care not what your opinion might be. I care only to have my own returned to me.”
“You cannot have them. I would not demean myself by dealing with such as you. You only seek to go behind my back and fulfill the prophecy.”
This time it was Gabriel who answered in syllables of liquid fire. Caroline looked back at Akakios who was very pale and looked unsteady on his feet, but show smiled a little at her expression and said, “Ask not, Lady. Your brother wouldn’t thank me to translate those words for your ears.”
A snarl made her turn back to the fight, just in time to slice off the head of one of the hounds.
Her victory lasted only seconds. She was just wondering how come she, not an experienced fighter, had managed to kill one of the dogs, when the corpse on the floor became instantly whole and came at her again. She backed up. She now realized no matter how many wounds she inflicted, the dogs would keep coming at them, again and again and again, their number never diminishing.
That was why Akakios had said that no matter what happened, if they left Gabriel alone, then he would die here. But what would their having jumped in to help do, but increase the time he would survive? In the end, he must still, per force, die. There was only one of him, and all told infinite numbers of these re-born dogs.
But then … “Akakios, you said he would die if we left him alone,” Caroline said, “But what has our joining him ensured, but that we die with him, if a little late.”
“Well may you ask him, Caroline,” Gabriel said. “The prince is a fool, and has brought you into an untenable position where you will do nothing but die with me. I do not wish to see you die, and anyway, Seraphim would find a way to raise me from the dead and kill me.” He slashed forward, suddenly, earning them a little space and kicking the carcasses of dogs far away before they reconstituted and came alive again. It seemed to Caroline that he had more strength here than on Earth, because these dogs were almost man-sized and he was kicking them easily. He looked at her, just a glance, his eyes wild. “It is me they want. Prince Akakios,” the name was a shout. “Can you manage, despite your wounds, to do the inverse journey of what you did? They’ll close in on me when you leave, so you should have to leap a shorter space.”
Akakios replied in the liquid-fire language this time, and Caroline thought it too must be those words that Gabriel wouldn’t want her to know, except that Gabriel’s answer back made it obvious it was something else, “You might not be disloyal, but you are stupid. I am not your lord nor your sovereign, and dying for me will earn you nothing, and certainly not your prophecy.”
This seemed to shut Akakios up, because he said nothing for a long while. Fighting as hard as she could and starting to feel not only her arms hurting with holding the sword of power, but her magic sting from the long-drawn-out-power needed to keep the sword going, Caroline wondered if Akakios was considering taking her out of here, and what she would do if he decided to do so.
Part of her wanted to leave. She was very young. She had never had a season. She’d never been allowed at grown up parties, and somewhere at the back of her mind was the idea that eventually, should she escape this, she would like to be married and have children, and perhaps get to travel a little and see the world beyond the isles.
It had never been a part of her plan to die at fifteen in fairyland, defending her illegitimate brother.
On the other hand, if she left, if she walked away… She could imagine Seraphim asking her where she’d left Gabriel and what was the last thing that had happened to him. She could see the pain in Seraphim’s eyes when she told him, and she knew she would carry the same pain with her her whole life. Gabriel might never have been acknowledged as their brother, but he’d been one of them and her friend her whole life.
And then there was the other side of it – that Seraphim would forgive her easily. After all, she was just a woman. No one expected of her gallant acts of self-defense, much less in defense of others. It was logical, because she was weak and she was young, and yet the idea infuriated her. She wanted to be able to protect Gabriel, who had so often protected her.
She’d just set her chin and decided that dying here was less painful than living a life considering herself forsworn, when Akakios tugged on her cloak. “Give me your cloak, Lady, do.”
“My cloak?” Caroline asked, mid sword-swipe, wondering if the centaur had lost his mind. “What are you going to do with my cloak?”
“I cannot explain,” he said. “Just give it to me. I promise not to harm it unduly.”
“Do with it as you will,” she said, without turning, loosening from her throat the pin that had held the cloak. She felt it fall from her shoulders and thought that it must be some arcane magic, particularly since Gabriel seemed to have antecipated what Akakios would do, and said, sternly, “Prince, this will not help.”
“Perhaps nothing will help, Sire, but we must try.”
There was… Caroline could not describe it. There was a sound that wasn’t a sound, a whisper that wasn’t a whisper, and a feeling like a small wind behind her, and Akakios let out with a small groan as if of pain.
When she turned back to look at him, he stood by the wall, and at first she thought he had shrunk. Then she realized the now-familiar Akakios face was atop a… human body, with her cloak wrapped around himself in the way the men of ancient Greece had worn a chiton.
She barely turned back in time to defend herself from a snarling dog, and would have been wounded, had not Gabriel come to her aid. “He is a fool,” Gabriel told her, and for the first time looked truly angry. “He should get you out of here.”
“If he got me out of here, I would not go,” Caroline said, then shouted back. “Akakios, Prince, what do you intend on doing. How does this help?” She felt a little odd about his shape change. It was all very well for her to have ridden a-centaur back. Centaurs were a different species and no one could consider them marriage prospects. But now he was, to all eyes, a man like all others. And she’d ridden upon his back.
She could almost hear Seraphim tell her this was no time to be missish, and Gabriel would probably say it too, if he thought of it, but she could not banish it from her mind, even as Akakios said, “My other form, lady, doesn’t climb too well. Or jump like this very easilly”
And then she realized the wall behind her ended just far enough above for even Gabriel not to be able to reach up there. And she couldn’t fully see Akakios leap, but he must have used magic to assist himself, because he’d jumped up and was holding to the top of the wall with his hands, then scrambling up with his feet. Before Caroline could fully get her breath, he was leaning down, almost from the waist down and extending her both hands. “Lady!” he said. She got what he meant to do, and reached up. He grabbed around her wrists and pulled her up, with minimal assist of her feet scrambling up the wall.
When he hauled her all the way up, she threw herself, face first, onto a path that seemed to be fine white sand and run at the top of the wall, all the way up, like a widow’s walk atop a fortification. Akakios feet were twined around a marker on the other side of the path in a way that must hurt his injured legs, but he didn’t complain.
She didn’t need Akakios prodding. She immitated him, then both of them leaned down.
“Sire,” Akakios called down to Gabriel, now with his back against the wall again. “My Lord. Your sister can keep you safe a little while, if you give us your hands.”
And Caroline realized what he meant, and bent her mind to stop the dogs. It took longer, this time, and was harder, but her mind was clearer if not stronger than that of the king of Fairyland. For a moment, the dogs stopped, as though frozen in their tracks.
Gabriel didn’t argue. He must be very tired indeed, Caroline thought. Instead, he turned around and while she and Akakios each held one of his arms with both hands, he scrambled up the wall with his feet.
He fell half atop of them, heavy, panting hard, then rolled off and lay on the path, still panting hard. “You are both idiots,” were the first words he said.
“You’re welcome, I’m sure, Mr. Penn,” Caroline said with a sniff. Gabriel took this cutting remark with a sudden and explosive laugh and sat up.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t grateful to you two idiots. Do you have any idea where you landed us?”
Akakios had sat up, also, and was rubbing at his ankles, which were bleeding from what seemed like giant dog bites. “I expect on the path to the king’s castle,” he said. “I will not shift if it’s the same to you and if I can continue borrowing the cloak, Lady. The wounds are bigger as human, but they are of less consequence, and this is no path for a horse’s hooves.”
Caroline looked up and saw that they were in fact on the proverbial path that spiraled up the proverbial white mountain, to the proverbial fairytale castle, which flew with pennants and flags. For a moment, it was so beautiful, it took her breath away. Then she remembered the voice of the king of fairyland and shivered.
Gabriel, stretched, reached over, and touched Akakios’s ankles. The wounds retracted, closed. In seconds there were only scars.
Akakios took a deep breath. “The king’s touch.”
“Or just very good elven power,” Gabriel said. “Don’t go saying stupid things, or we can’t be friends anymore. I wonder why my ever-loving uncle dropped me outside this particular wall.”
“He couldn’t help it. It’s the prophecy.”
“Talking about the prophecy will also mean we can’t be friends anymore,” Gabriel said. “We could walk the other way, but my guess is the dogs will be waiting for us as soon as they can reach us. Also, I have a strong feeling Michael is kept up there,” he pointed towards the castle.
“Then we’ll go there,” Caroline said, and thought how long it would take on this weary road. But at least there were no dogs. A nagging feeling told her there might well be something worse, but she ignored it.
“We will indeed,” Gabriel said, standing up, and extending a hand to her. “And we might yet wish ourselves back with the dogs.”