*Guys, I want to apologize for this chapter. Not for being late, but for the chapter. It was devilishly hard to write, and I had no intention of inflicting it on you, only it wouldn’t let me off, and you know… I think it’s vital. But … gag… it’s not the sort of thing I like to write.*
*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. *
Something Sickly, Something Sweet
Gabriel didn’t know how he’d got back to fairyland. He couldn’t remember exactly how old he was, and he didn’t know what he’d been doing, just before he found himself here.
But there was no doubt he was in fairyland. He recognized the mist around him, the weaving writhing kind of fogs that happened only when magic was involved.
It felt cold and clammy on his skin, permeating the sleeves of the too-small, too-tight suit which should have been replaced years ago, when he was … six? Seven? But which continued to be his only suit, even though his body had grown so much. His wrists showed, bony, exposed, and his hands, small, thin, covered in the scrapes and sores a sweeper boy accumulated keeping the crossing clean for the fine lords and ladies who didn’t want to taint the hem of their clothing with horse droppings.
But he didn’t know where his broom had gone, nor the last time he’d swept. He felt tired, as if he’d spent the whole day sweeping, but then why hadn’t he gone home?
His bare feet plodded along the pavement he couldn’t quite see through the mist, and his steps slowed down. Somewhere, up ahead was… He couldn’t remember, only that he was supposed to go there, that he meant to go there, but he didn’t know why.
He shivered in the mist and wondered if his mother had locked the door because she was with one of those friends who paid money, and if he’d somehow wandered out so tired that he’d stepped, unwary, into fairyland. But no, surely not. He’d been thrown out of fairyland with his mother. He remembered it. And he had never wanted to come back.
A shiver ran up his spine at the memory of his last days of fairyland, of what he’d had to do, how he’d had to find the will to resist, just to be thrown out.
Perhaps his uncle wanted him back? To serve as a source of magic and a– He cut the thought off, and continued walking.
If only he weren’t so hungry. Starving, really, which shouldn’t surprise him, since it had been his condition for most of his time in the earth of mortals, at least since Mr. Penn had left mama. But it surprised him, or rather, it felt unaccustomed to his body, as though he’d been well fed and well taken care of for a long time, and this discomfort felt like an outrage. It made tears prickle at the back of his eyes, and it made him feel scared and fragile in turns.
The smell of cake came from somewhere to the left, away from the path he’d been following. He didn’t remember why he’d been feeling that path, and though he was in fairyland and knew therefore directions could change without warning, and that the image the smell of cake invoked, of a bakery window piled high with treats was not true. All he could think was that the bakery near his mother’s house, sometimes threw out cake that had gone so stale that it could be used for no other purpose. He’d often found it in the rubbish bins behind the shop.
His steps changed almost without his meaning to. The first disturbing change was that he felt as though the tendrils of fog had now become personal, intimate. They seemed to insinuate into his clothes, attempt to crawl into his skin. The touch disturbed him, repulsed him. It felt too close, too… tight… too much of not letting him alone. It awakened memories he could not quite focus on.
As he walked on, still in fog, the smell of cake got stronger, and but the light grew too. Quite suddenly, he was standing in a plaza amid shops. It was London, he thought, but not the London he lived in, with its decaying hovels, its narrow streets. Once or twice, he’d walked beyond his neighborhood and glimpsed something of this: clean facades, prim maids going about their business in starched, frilled aprons, and the windowshops filled with dolls and toys, with cakes and hams and all manner of good things.
The shop windows were there and laden, but there was no one in sight. The street was quiet, probably because it was nighttime. But in the center of the little plaza, a table was set, with a sparkling white table cloth. On the table sat cakes and pies, and candy in big piles. The light pouring on it from the gas lamps above sparkled on sugar decorations and put a mellow gold color on the sweet buns.
Like Seraphim’s birthday table, Gabriel thought. That first time. But when he tried to pursue the memory, it retreated before him and he couldn’t remember at all who Seraphim was.
Instead he approached the table, slowly, with the certainty that this much food, freely displayed, had to be some sort of catch. Even wild beasts knew that much.
He half expected it to disappear, but it didn’t, and with his eyes fixed on a certain, particularly colorful piece of candy, he imagined it melting in his mouth, sickly sweet.
But when he was almost within reach of it, the fog hardened like a prison, and held him. “No,” the fog said, whispering in his ear in a sweet, cloying tone. “No, little boy, there is a price.”
Gabriel caught his breath on shock, on recoil of that voice, on memories he couldn’t reach, and yet made him feel uncomfortable. “Please, sir,” he said. “I’m just hungry.”
And as he said them it seemed to him he’d said these words before, and that what followed – He stepped back, recoiling from the sweets, but the fog was there again, not letting him run.
If the table weren’t there, with its tempting sweets. If his stomach didn’t hurt with hunger. If—
He felt will power leave him and went limp, in the grasp of the fog.
Through his mind, unbidden, came a voice, a glimpse of an adult, in a classroom, standing by a chart that represented the worlds that touched Avalon and saying, “The power of fairyland is in childhood. It reaches into this, feeds on it, in the manner of a leech or parasite. This makes fairyland a parasite leech upon the worlds.”
Gabriel had a moment of wanting to protest that it wasn’t true, that the power direction was all wrong, and then he couldn’t remember what it was all about. What a strange dream. He’d never been in a classroom like that. Classrooms like that were not for the likes of Gabriel Penn.
“Will you pay?” the fog hissed.
Gabriel looked at the table, at the candy. His stomach roared its hunger. How bad could it be? He had an idea that it could be very bad, but also that he’d survived it in the past. He closed his eyes. A voice came from somewhere in his memory saying, “An’ you can do whatever you want with him, governor. No one will care. He’s elfborn and got only a crazy fairymother. You can even kill him if it pleases you.”
From somewhere too, came a memory that they’d almost had, but then Father had burst in and—
But the memory vanished as if it had never been, leaving only the certainty it could be survived. But hunger might not be. When had he eaten last? How long could he keep walking with no sustenance?
He closed his eyes. He said, “I will pay.”
And then the fog was on him, in him, touching every single pore of his being, while strange, alien thoughts poured into his mind.
Gabriel Penn found himself falling to his knees, while darkness and cloying sweetness consumed his mind.