*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 and down. 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 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*
The Duke’s Duty
And now this. Seraphim stared at the thing on the seat. Were it not for his ability to unfocus his eyes and to look just so at that he would think it was Michael, but it was not.
The question was, how long had his brother been missing? Would this sculpture, this animated construct always have been like this, listless and unresponsive? Or was there a way it could have acted like Michael and Seraphim not have known, or – more importantly – the household not have known, while Seraphim was unconscious?
He looked towards the Duchess and narrowed his eyes, “Mama, they’ve always told me… that is… I’ve always heard it tell that you knew about changelings, and that this related to something in your childhood, but no one ever told me what? It was all whispers and then ‘well, you know, because of her childhood’ and when I pursued the information they told me I was not to speak of it.” He looked steadily at his Mama, hoping that she wasn’t about to tell him this was not to be spoken of. He knew he was making poor Penny damned uncomfortable. He could tell without turning to look, without Penny saying a single word. He knew whatever the mystery with changelings in Mama’s childhood was related directly to whatever and whoever Penny was. That Penny would not in fact be here today but for mama and whatever had brought her in the presence of elves in her childhood. “How did you know, Mama? What is it with changelings? Have you seen one of these before?”
The Duchess looked at the thing on the stool and sighed. “It is not,” she said. “A changeling like the one they left for me, when they stole me to fairyland as a child.”
A long breath, with a sound on the edge of keening escaped Penny, but Darkwater didn’t turn to look, and instead kept looking at his mother, who spoke like one in a dream. “This is a construct, animated. It looks like, and probably is, ice. Water that someone poured in the rough shape of a young man, and then left overnight to freeze, then animated and gave your brother’s look by magic. It is not alive. It has no feelings. It–”
“Stop,” Gabriel Penn said. And what was so strange was that Penny had told the Dowager to stop, something he’d never done before. “Stop, Your Grace,” he moderated, and sighed. “It will not do. We should discuss it, yes, but not here. Not in … its presence.” He waved towards the changeling, who remained, impassive, on his stool, looking blankly at the world.
“But Mother says it’s not animated,” Caroline said.
Penn sighed again. “No, but still.”
“What should we do with it then?” Darkwater asked. It seemed to him foolish to leave the thing alone, as though it might get up to mischief on its own.
“Nothing,” Penn said. “It is losing its magic and will presently melt. But if you feel better, Duke, we shall lock it in the closet.” He took the creature’s arm and led it, and it let itself be led, to a cupboard in the wall, where Michael kept his chemicals and his vials. Penn pushed the creature in there, closed the door and locked. Then closed the closet to sight and sound with a carefully aimed spell.
Then he turned to the room, “Shall we speak, now?” he asked. “This is one of the safest rooms in the house to discuss such things in, since Michael has hardened it against magical interference, so no rival houses could see his designs.”
“But that thing got in,” Caroline said. And Penn smiled at her. “Yes, Caroline, it did, but not through here. My guess is that Michael has been gone for days, perhaps before Seraphim was injured. These changelings have a certain programing and seem more real and solid, and interact with everyone normally for a few days, and then wind down and become whatever material they were.”
“Then why didn’t you allow us to speak in front of it?” Seraphim said.
“Because sometimes they are rigged so as to transmit sight and sound to whoever made them. I have shut it in the closet and blocked all sound magically. We are safe now. And I believe,” he said. “First I will let Her Grace tell us what happened to her in childhood.”
It occurred to Seraphim, for the first time, that Penny spoke as though he knew what it was. He said so, and Penny pressed his lips together. “Indeed, Seraphim. Perforce I know.” And though Seraphim didn’t know why perforce, in fact couldn’t think of any reason for Penny to know, save that, of course, his mother was an elf, and changelings were connected to elves, he kept quiet.
“I will tell,” his Mama said. “But let us sit. Seraphim should not remain standing long.” He allowed his mother to lead him to a little sitting area around a large, glimmering sphere whose purpose Michael had never succeeded in explaining fully, but which seemed to interest the heads of several magic houses. There were three straight backed chairs, a chaise and a sofa. He refused to lie down on the chaise, but allowed himself to be led to the sofa and sat down on it, glad only that no one had brought an invalid’s shawl to drape around his shoulders. Mama sat in one of the straight backed chairs. Caroline half-reclined on the chaise. Penny remained standing, but Seraphim wasn’t about to challenge him, suspecting it had to do with his idea of preserving the appearance of his position, while in public.
Then he realized there was someone else with them. They’d been so absorbed in their conversation that he hadn’t noticed her before. Miss Helen Felix had come with them, trailing her grey blanked. The woman must be freezing, even with the blanket, and indeed looked very pale and tired. He looked at her, “Miss Felix? Should we have private talk in front of you? Two whom do you report?”
She gave something that wasn’t a half laugh. “To no one, Your Grace,” she said. “Up until this mor– No, up until the day I left here, whenever that was, I worked for Sidell, spymaster for the king. Then I would have said I reported to him. But all that was severed first by his betraying me, and then by his killing the man he was holding hostage for my good behavior. I am now, Your Grace, entirely a free agent, and as a free agent, I confess I’d like to do what I can to bring your brother back.”
Seraphim didn’t know whether to believe it. After all, the king’s spies were trained and paid to lie. He hesitated.
“She can hear my story,” his mother said, quietly. Seraphim noted that the Duchess didn’t protest that Miss Felix was Penny’s fiancé. “It is nothing so secret that she can’t find out the general outlines of it simply by talking to anyone old enough to have listened to gossip or practiced magic when I was a child. It is not normally spoken of, because people are afraid to give me pain, not because it is not known.”
Seraphim looked at Penny, “And you? Since I presume you’ll be talking, also?”
Penny looked surprised, then glanced at Miss Felix and shrugged. “Oh, she can hear mine too. There is nothing in it that cannot be gathered with some sleuthing, and I suspect the king’s secret services know it well enough. If I’ve kept it secret at all it was to spare your family shame by association, but I judge in the trouble we face that is the least of our worries.”
“When I was five,” the Duchess spoke. “I was stolen away to fairyland. No one knows why.” She spoke a little too loudly, a little to cheerfully, as though trying too hard to sound normal. And she’d barely let Penny stop talking before she started. “I had magic, of course, but no more than my brothers and sisters, and no more than a hundred other children in the immediate vicinity of my parents’ estate. But whatever it was, and for whatever reason, it was a well planned thing. You see.” She looked up at Penny, and her eyes unfocused. Not as though she didn’t want to see him, but more as though she knew what she had to say would touch him very nearly and were trying to pull herself away from it, and not to dwell on the pain she was giving. “You see, the changeling they left in my place was not a construct, but a little girl. A little elf girl they had to have shaped from very early on to look exactly like me and behave exactly like me. For days – weeks – my parents didn’t know I was missing.
“For myself too,” she said. “It was hard to tell. I lived mostly in the nursery, with nanny and the nursery maids. My life was surrounded by toys and I was an imaginative child. As such… Well, I thought simply that my toys were more alive than before. For a long time, I didn’t notice that I was in another realm and then…”
“And then I started to feel cold. Not physically. I don’t think fairyland is any colder than here. It is, after all, like another world in the multiuniverse, just one that never fully separated. So while it is in a way attached to our world, it is also a copy of it. It has the same climate at the same time. But there is… Everyone in fairyland is cold.” She shrugged. Penny was walking back and forth across the little sitting area, as though he couldn’t sit still, but he nodded when she said that. “It’s not that they don’t show emotion,” she continued. “It is that they don’t know what emotion is. They are like humans without the…” She shrugged. “I’m sure Gabriel can explain it better than.”
“Yes,” Penny said. “Yes. But not just yet, pray go on.” He paced. She looked up at him.
“I realized that I was in a way absolutely alone, like… like a child raised by wolves would be alone.” Penny shuddered, as though in response to her words. “But I was too young to know what had happened or to seek to escape captivity. I could not, and as such, I would have remained forever captive in fairyland, but… But my parents had an hostage. And they did what has always been done when a real changeling, a living one is left behind in place of the child taken. They tortured her. They subjected her to various discomforts, until I was brought back.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Gabriel.”
He paused in his pacing. For a crazy moment, Seraphim wondered if the changeling had been Gabriel, such the tone of his mother’s voice. Could elves change their gender? He’d never heard tell of such a thing. And besides, Penny was around his age, was he not? Could he have been kept in some stasis, so he didn’t grow? But no, Penny was Seraphim’s half brother. He had the Darkwater look, the Darkwater magic, and Seraphim’s own father had recognized him as such.
“What is there to be sorry for, Your Grace?” he asked, pausing in his pacing to look at her. “Oh, perhaps, yes, perhaps it was that torture, which, though, from what I heard was very mild, at least for an elf, which led her to never quite fit in fairyland again. But I don’t think so. I never told you why we were thrown out, she and I, have I? I told my father when–” He shook his head. “I beg your pardon.”
“You beg my pardon? For admitting the duke was your father? Or for mentioning it in my presence? Of all the things your father did, Gabriel, siring you was probably one of the most worthy. Don’t scruple to admit it. He admitted you openly, even if he never changed the name your mother gave you, since nothing could be gained by saddling you with Ainsling, when no title and no fortune accrued with it.”
Penny only nodded, though Seraphim wasn’t sure to what.
“My mother was the changeling left in place of Her Grace,” he said. “She was also the child of the deposed king of fairyland. No, don’t ask me how or why. There are revolutions in fairyland, and civil wars, just as there are here. And I think at the end of the last such war, when my… I suppose, my grandfather, the then sovereign of fairyland was deposed, he left behind his young daughter. It was thought that by sending her as a changeling to the world of mortals, it would dispose of her, I think – though the thinking of elves is not the same as ours and it is hard to fathom at times. However, in the time she was away, there was another revolution and my… I suppose my uncle, became the sovereign of fairyland. he could not allow a princess of fairykind to be tortured in the world of humans and therefore, reluctantly – and I do feel it was reluctantly, though I can’t explain why – he gave Her Grace back to her parents and took my mother back. But he had children of his own to inherit after him. And my mother was ever odd. Oh, I don’t think they did more than threaten her and make her uncomfortable, and perhaps make her work – the things that legend says one should do to changelings, though some people make the poor creatures sit on live coals or worse – and strangely, from what I know of my poor Mama, I don’t think that’s what changed her.
“Just like Her Grace could not survive in fairyland, not without noticing the exceptional coldness of elves and would have been changed beyond repair had she stayed in there longer, my mother had experienced the warmth of humans and it had changed her, so she no longer responded like a real elf.
“And she could not live in fairyland, not fully. Instead, she would escape to the world of men. Which is how she met with Arden Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater. And she returned to fairyland expecting me.”
“And meanwhile, Darkwater found me, was enchanted by my resemblance to his vanished elf love, and started courting me,” the Dowager said.
Penny hesitated, looking like he would apologize, then inclined his head. “Only I fit in even worse than my poor Mama. I was more human, you see. There is… there is sport the elves engage in. They will capture some child out of doors on a dark night, or some lost creature, and they will torture it. When I was three or four, I tried to rescue a puppy that was being tortured for the amusement of the court. My mother and I were flung from fairyland and unworthy.” He was silent a long while. “When my father found me, we were living in a tenement and Mama…” A long, deep breath. “I begged to supplement our income. It wasn’t until I had lived in this house for two years that they tried to reclaim me, and only because they couldn’t allow me to live as a commoner among humans. They didn’t want me to keep me.” He looked up, and a sudden fierce light burned in his eyes, such as Seraphim had never seen. “They didn’t want me for me, or because they cared for me, or even because they honored me, or my lineage. They’d probably have killed me once they’d got me back to fairyland. But they didn’t want me to live among humans and perhaps come to value my human heritage over my elven one.” Another pause. “I don’t know why they took Michael or what for, but I swear to you, all of you, that I will do my outmost to bring him back, and – if I can – to bring fairyland down with it.”