*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 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.*
For previous chapters, look here: https://accordingtohoyt.com/witchfinder/
After The Bird Has Flown
There was no worse feeling, Gabriel thought, than arriving to close the door of the birdcage a moment after the bird had flown.
Not that Seraphim and Miss Felix were birds, or that the odd portal – was it a portal?
– to another world was a cage door. For one, Gabriel was almost sure that neither Seraphim nor Miss Felix had meant to go through it and into– Where?
And then, in that split second after he realized he’d lost track of his legitimate brother, the head of his house on whom, in fact, his entire family depended, he realized that he had a bigger problem
The corpse was shambling towards him.
He’d had some experience in Cambridge with reanimated corpses. He wouldn’t say that was what had put paid to his one and only love affair, but it had certainly exploded the whole thing into the public eye and had forced him to leave Cambridge in disgrace.
Normally the only way to kill a reanimated corpse was to get the person who’d first animated it to help. That had been the problem, really, back then, though perhaps Gabriel hadn’t dealt with it as sanely as he should have.
But now, ten years later, he still had no idea how to deal with it. You couldn’t put an animated corpse down without the collaboration and the help of the person who’d reanimated it. Who could have animated Antoine? It had to be someone in the house? But who would have done it and set him up as a magical trap to send Seraphim and Miss Felix– Where?
He backed up as the corpse shambled forward. He raised his wand.
And then, as if a switch had been turned, Antoine’s corpse closed its gaping mouth, swayed, and fell, forward, with all the grace of a sack full of sand.
Gabriel realized he was shaking and sweating, standing alone in the empty guest room, staring at a dead man and wondering where Seraphim and Miss Felix were. Always, that question came back. What had happened to Seraphim and Miss Felix? And what would happen now?
Gabriel backed up, until his back hit the wall of the hallway, opposite the door to the room. For a moment – for just a moment – he thought he’d go back in and pull the bell pull and call for help. But what help could he call? The Duchess? Already fearing for the life of her younger son, and perhaps for his sanity, lost in fairyland, what could she do about the loss of her older son? Caroline? Caroline was a mere child. Oh, precocious beyond her years, but how much help could she be? Worse, how much help should he ask of her. They were very likely to be dealing with forbidden magics here, before it was all said and done. Travel to other lands, for sure, and probably meddling in their affairs too.
Worse, he realized, with a feeling as though a leaden weight had settled on his stomach, some people – perhaps even the duchess, almost certainly not Caroline, but surely every servant in the house – would suspect him of having done this. The magic was so odd, the animation of the cadaver, the portal. Fairy magic, they’d say, and they’d talk about him behind their hands. He’d once again meet the odd looks that focused on him for a moment, then slid sideways, and know, know as he did in his first days in the house, that behind their backs they held their fingers crossed, an impotent attempt at stopping the evil magic he had no intent of using.
What could he do? He couldn’t leave Seraphim lost. Or Michael. Or possibly even Miss Felix, if she was innocent in this. His mouth went dry in a panic, and at first he thought the loud banging was coming from his head or from his heart.
Then he realized it was coming from the front door. Someone was pounding on the door, loudly, and shouting something. Sound of running feet echoed through the house, and distantly, Gabriel heard the front door open.
There were shouting voices, one of them almost for sure the buttler’s. Here, in the guest wing, where every room was unoccupied, there was a great silence, but the shouting voices continued, and now there were many people coming in, at least if Gabriel was interpreting the voices correctly.
Gabriel was the only son left in the house, even if he wasn’t a son of the house, properly speaking. He must protect the dowager and Caroline.
He ran towards the noise, but before he got there met with a maid running in the other direction, towards the family wing. He stopped her, daring – an unwonted familiarity in him – to put his hand out to her shoulder. He couldn’t remember her name, though he was sure he knew it. Bessie or Annie or something like that. All their names swirled in his head, and what came out of his mouth was, “Please, you must tell me. Please, what is happening.”
If she was shocked at being touched, she didn’t show it, though she did drop back and drop him a courtesy. It seemed to be unspoken etiquette of the house to treat Gabriel as an upper servant and to give him the deference they gave the butler and the house keeper, just short of the deference they gave Seraphim or the family. “Sir,” she said. “Sir. It is the constables. And the king’s magical police, and they want His Grace. They said as he done murder, and the murdered man, killed by magic is in the house!” Her mouth worked and no words came out. “Sir. And they say as you helped, sir.”
There are moments when a man’s life hangs on a thin thread of decision. Gabriel was the only man left in the house, the only male descendant of the late Duke of Darkwater, who might protect the women in family. But he was also half fey, easy to paint as a villain in this tale that had spun itself out to ensnare his family. Not that he minded, or not too much. He’d grown used to it, if not easy with it, over the years of living amid the mortals. But in this case, what he was, who he was, could be used to taint all of the Darkwaters.
If they were going to argue that Seraphim had killed this stranger for no good reason, they’d need to get the closest witness out of the way, and that was Gabriel. Who also happened to be the only witness to the fact that Seraphim had disappeared against his will. And Gabriel would on top of all, make people mistrust the family that had harbored him – his family. After all, people that took a half-fairy child into their home, would surely do any sort of stupid thing, any sort of criminal thing.
Gabriel swallowed hard. He put his hand out again, and this time held onto the girl’s arm. Given how leery he was, usually, of touching anyone at all in the house, it should have alarmed her but it didn’t. Instead, Gabriel found her gaze fixed intently on him with a sort of puzzling expression. Was it hope? Did he add to all his sins the broken hearts of housemaids? He removed his hand slowly, and raked back his hair which somehow had fallen forward over his face, “Listen, Annie,” he said, and in that moment knew the name was Bessie, but didn’t want to correct it. “Tell Her Grac– No, tell Caroline, Miss Ainsling, that I’ve gone to… to avoid the… my presence can only hurt them. Tell Caroline that Seraphim was pulled into another world, and I’m going in search of him and find him or die trying. Tell her and then…” he thought, and suddenly realized for the girl’s protection itself, there was only thing he could do. He put magic behind his order, to make both parts a compulsion. “Tell her immediately, and then forget it. It never happened. You never saw me.”
He let the girl go, and watched her walk – no, run – towards the family wing in that half-mechanical gait of people under a compulsion. And then he ran the other way, towards his room. He ran faster than he’d ever run. He ran as though the fires of hell were burning at his heels, the hounds of hell pursuing him.
He could hear the voices of strangers in the house. He could hear the tones as the Buttler tried to keep them from coming in further. He’d have to use a spell to leave. That would leave a signature, but never mind. He’d go to London, where the magical trace was harder to find, and then he’d transport from there. And then he’d stop long enough to figure out how to find Seraphim.
Blindly, he pulled his luggage from under the bed. Blindly, he threw clothes into it, both from the trunk at the foot of his bed, and from the peg on the wall. There were steps on the corridor, and his mouth was dry, and his heart was pounding. And now there was a knock at his door, and a voice calling out, “Mr. Penn?”
And the voice was not one he knew.
Without looking, without turning, he lifted his hand and threw a lock spell at the door. It wouldn’t hold any sort of constabulary for long. Not if they had a magician with them, which they would. Surely, they would. But it would slow them down.
He looked down at himself and realized he was still wearing only his underwear and his dressing gown. His feet were bare. There was nothing he could do about that, and it was almost funny that he should leave this house as he had entered, grossly underdressed for the weather.
He lifted his hand and with a pass, opened a portal, and found himself, between one breath and the next, in the betweener, and then, suddenly, again, on an alley in London. Nearby, a baby cried. Somewhere, further off, a woman laughed, a full throated laugh that reminded Gabriel of his mother.
London was a criss cross of magical comings and goings, and it would take them a while to track him here, but how long was a while?
In his mind, the events of the last day had assembled. Someone had tricked Seraphim into committing what could be construed as a crime, and then they’d taken him away, so he couldn’t demand king’s justice. They’d taken Michael too. And now he, himself, had had to leave. Why? What did they want? Access to the house? Possibly. Or just to destroy the family? Possibly also.
But whatever they wanted, and whoever they were – perhaps the shadowy cabal he and Seraphim had encountered in distant worlds and nicknamed The Others – they would not be stopped by something like the difficulty of tracing someone in London. They’d barely be slowed down.
In his mind’s eye, he saw his room’s door smashed down. Now they’d be tracing him… now.
There was only one place he could go; only one place he could hide. Marlon, curse him, had a tight enough lock on his lodgings that in ten years of living outside the law, no one had caught him, nothing had emerged about his wereabouts.
And Marlon, curse him, would take Gabriel in, though the price would be more than Gabriel would ever pay for himself, by his own choice. But to save the only family he’d ever known? There was no price too high.
He lifted his hand and, loathing himself, loathing his necessity, opened a portal to secret coordinates he’d promised himself he’d never use.