*My excuse for being late this week is that I’m on the final phase of the second book of the vampire musketeers. And as such, I had trouble focusing on Witchfinder. Sorry!*
*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. *
For previous chapters, look here: https://accordingtohoyt.com/witchfinder/
Caroline hadn’t left the path. She was sure of it. She set her jaw in what a young man once had told her was a very daunting expression. Not that it thought it was true, only the young man had strayed from a ball held at Darkwater and had found her in the garden area just outside the nursery. Caroline supposed that this meant he had thought her an easy mark, since she was only fourteen and not yet come out.
Afterwards, Seraphim had told her the gentleman was a desperate fortune hunter, his pockets prodigiously to let, and had been trying to seduce a girl he thought was a naif, and also had a pretty fortune. He’d been wrong on both counts, and Seraphim and Caroline had ended the night by laughing over cups of hot chocolate in the governess’s rooms, about the surprise the fine young dandy would have got, had he managed to seduce Caroline.
But of course Caroline was not a fool and knew better than to believe claims that she was the fairest woman this man of the world had ever seen, or that, in her plain muslin frock, with the ribbon trimming, she eclipsed the belles of London. She might have been fourteen, but she’d never been stupid. She’d set her jaw just like so, her teeth clenched against all his compliments, and she’d carefully set a don’t-touch spell between herself and the young man. As it happened it had been the yelp he gave when reaching for her and meeting the painful barrier which felt rather like a bite, which had got Seraphim’s attention, and Seraphim had escorted him off the grounds, with stern words, before coming to speak to Caroline.
Caroline wondered if Seraphim had fought the man. It seemed hardly worth it, as he had not in fact touched her, but he might have. The code of honor of men was a closed book to the young woman.
She scratched her nose. But the one thing that was absolutely sure was that Seraphim could not in fact fight a duel with all of fairyland for having led her astray. Though doubtless he would try. He could be very foolish that way.
Caroline felt like she wanted to cry, and instead set her teeth hard and rehearsed her wrongs. She had not strayed from the path, nor left her mother. They’d heard a cry – from a woman they thought – and they’d made it a point of going to help her. This made perfect sense. What made no sense whatsoever was for her to now find herself alone, her mother nowhere in sight.
“Mother?” she essayed. And then “Your grace?” just in case other rules applied here that didn’t apply in the normal world. And then again, in a high, hopeless voice, “Mother!”
But her mother didn’t answer, and Caroline set her jaw again and determined she would be brave. After all, fairyland might very well be able to take her tears and do something horrible with them. She couldn’t tell. She’d once heard a conversation between Gabriel and Seraphim. She’d been hiding – or at least not quite hiding, but in a place she couldn’t be seen – in the library. She’d wiled a snowy afternoon away there, in a window seat half-hidden in the shadow of the fireplace. Wrapped in a woolen shawl, she’d read all afternoon, and then woken to find that Seraphim and Gabriel were there and talking, and that neither of them had any idea she could hear them.
She supposed she should have said something; given the alarm in some way. But the truth was that listening to the two men talk, when they thought she wasn’t about, had been like opening a window into a vista that she’d never been allowed to gaze upon.
She supposed she’d always known that Gabriel was their brother. At least she couldn’t remember not knowing. He was the son of their father, and a fairy lady. The same scary fairy lady who’d come around when Caroline was very small.
But she’d never seen Seraphim and Gabriel behave as brothers, as they did that afternoon. There was nothing much to it. Or at least, most of their conversation went above her head. But it was clear that Gabriel was teasing Seraphim by making comments about Seraphim’s magic that she supposed would be a terrible insult in anyone else. And Seraphim laughed at them and, in return, called Gabriel “Penny”, a nickname that Gabriel said was utterly revolting. In the middle of the conversation she remembered, most of which might have been more understandable if it had been spoken in Chinese, she’d heard a sentence clearly uttered and ever afterwards remembered, “Fairyland feeds on emotion.”
If that was true, she would do her best to control hers. Let them starve. She assumed by some magic, they’d taken her from one path and onto the other, and left her mother upon the other. She hoped her mother would be well, then smiled at the thought that she was worrying about someone who had far more magical experience and power than she did. Yes, she’d been helpless before her magical doppelganger, but that didn’t mean that the Duchess didn’t very well know how to take care of herself.
She continued following the path – difficult as a rosy fog grew with every step. She had to feel about with her foot, until she found the edge of the path. At one point, for just a moment, the path cleared, and what she saw through the fog made her more determined than ever not to stray. Because what she saw through the fog was nothing. Not darkness, not a chasm, but nothing – a howling emptiness such as must have existed before creation.
And then the path veered and widened, and suddenly she was before the person crying. Person was a matter of speaking, in this case.
Caroline took a step back, hastily, barely managing to stay on the path, and gulped hard.
She was in what would otherwise be a charming clearing – a broad opening in between low trees that looked rather like a gardener had just got down trimming them. It was carpeted in soft, even grass. On the grass lay… She blinked.
A dragon. It was enormous, and reddish-orange. Now more red, now more orange, the colors chased each other across its sparkling scales, giving it the look of a lake ruffled by the wind. Its huge paws were stretched in front of it, to accomodate a massive head. It was crying. From its fanged mouth came distinctly feminine sobs.
Caroline didn’t even know that dragons could cry, much less that they could shed tears, and now, having found out, she was torn between empathy and fear.
After al, what would make a creature this size cry? And if he was one of the tree she was supposed to help on her path, what could she do to help this outsized grief.
She stepped back and must have made a sound, because the dragon looked up, and its tiny, stubby wings fluttered upon its back. “Oh,” it said, in a distinctly feminine and lady like voice. “I did not mean to… I beg your pardon. I must have alarmed you.”
Which was when Caroline realized that its wings were not short and stubby. Well, not naturally. Instead, they had been cut across, crudely, with some sharp instrument. The ragged edges still bled.
“Oh,” she said. “Does it hurt?” The dragon had the most disconcerting violet-blue eyes, fringed by dark lashes which looked at Caroline in absolute incomprehension. “Your wings?
The dragon sniffed. “I beg your pardon,” it said again. “I’ve forgotten myself.” And then, like that, it set up and… shifted. It was the only way that Caroline could put it.
In front of Caroline and completely naked, and seemingly not caring, was a very pretty young woman, her hair the color of the dragon scales, and rippling with color in the same way. She sat herself in the sort of pose one expected of mermaids waiting for wayward sailors, and smiled through her tears at Caroline. “I’d like to put a frock on, only I don’t have one here, and I’m afraid I can’t leave here.”
“Why can’t you leave?”
“Because of my wings,” the woman said, and her voice went all watery again.
“Who cut your wings? And why?”
“For trying to leave fairyland,” she said. “The king said I should never do so.”
“But I thought elves could leave and… and possibly elf dragons too,” Caroline said, confused. Because the truth was that she’d never heard of shifter dragons in fairyland. Most shifters were completely human, even when their forms were mythological. But she’d heard that there was such a thing as fairy horses, so perhaps there were fairy dragons, too. She refused to speculate further.
“Oh, yes, but you see, I… I went out and I became pregnant, and the kind punished me by saying I couldn’t leave fairyland. And when I tried to leave anyway, he cut my wings and confined me to this clearing.”
Caroline gulped. “Why would you try to leave, against the king’s will?”
“To find my baby.” The woman’s arms made a cradling motion. He was thrown out as a newborn, and I thought I could find him, if … I thought I might find him before he died, abandoned, on the street. But now it’s been two weeks and–” she gulped. “If he’s not been found, he’s dead.” She sighed and the tears started again. “I just realized it and I…”
“Don’t cry. Very few children are left to die on the street.” Though homes for magical orphans were often not much better. “Don’t cry. Tell me, instead, what help can I give you.”
The woman controlled her tears with an effort. “I see. You’re walking the path, then?”
The woman bit her lip. “You can give me my wings back and then, before the king finds that they have grown, I can go out and find my baby and raise him. I don’t care what I have to do. I don’t want him raised by strangers.”
And that at least was something Caroline could understand and approve of. “I can’t take a look at your wings – or at your back, I suppose, in this form, without leaving the path. If you approach and turn around.”
The dragon lady did so, facing away from Caroline. On her back there were two cruel gashes, just starting to scab over. And Caroline had a problem. She had used healing spells before. And she could make these wounds close and stop paining the woman. What she couldn’t do – had no idea how to do – was make the lost parts of skin which she supposed became the dragon wings, grow back.
She started explaining her predicment to the woman, but the dragon-lady interrupted, “Oh, please. You have to be able to. There must be something you can do, or the paths wouldn’t have brought you to me.”
Caroline considered the possibility the paths had been wrong, but in her experience magic rarely went wrong that way. Instead, she thought, best think of what she could do that would serve.
A glimmer formed in her mind, something that she’d once watched Gabriel do to a still-live bird the cat had brought in. Gabriel had told her, then, that such a spell was dangerous, more so for full-humans and that if he ever caught her doing it, he would give her the hiding of her life, even if the dowager Duchess killed him for it.
Caroline set her jaw and ground her teeth. Well, then, Gabriel wasn’t here, and neither was her mother. She would do what she had to do to get Michael out of captivity in fairyland.