*Okay, so it’s late and only one chapter. In my defense, I’ve been hit with an emergency request and I need time to work on that, since it must be done today. It is, you could say, a debt of honor. I WILL try to give you two chapters next week. At least this is not a short chapter (grin.) Oh, I might have repeated cards. If so, I’ll deal with it on rewrite. I kept trying to edit and getting confused :-P*
*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/
Symbol and Sign
She cut cards like a card sharp, and it caused him to raise an eyebrow at her, before he knew what he was doing. Heaven knew she’d not be the first member of her family to have a wicked addiction to the gaming tables, but the disaster that had been her great great grandfather’s reign didn’t need a reprise.
But she looked up as she brought the deck back together and grinned at his expression. “You need not look so dismayed, your grace. I was not weaned on betting or card games. Please remember Earth is different. Mostly I learned to play Go Fish with my grandmother’s friends when they visited. And one of her friends taught me to cut cards.”
“Go … Fish?” Seraphim asked, wondering if she was trying to insult him in a subtle way. But no, it didn’t have that tone.
“Oh. Yes. I imagine in Avalon even quite young children of good houses play Faro and loo in the nursery.”
“Not silver loo,” he said, in the hopes of making her laugh, and it worked. Her silvery laugh rang out, though she looked as though not quite sure he was joking.
“Well, in my world,” she said, softly and seemingly unconscious of knowing this was not quite her world. “Children don’t play for money. I think Go Fish is primarily designed to help you learn the suits.” She disciplined her features, amusement banishing. “Now, if you excuse me, even my poor methods require me to concentrate before I scry.”
She took a deep breath and steepled her hands over the playing cards. Elegant hands with long slim fingers, and Seraphim saw them bedecked in rings, and for a moment, wondered if he was having a premonition. Then he realized her hands resembled those of the Queen, which he usually kissed, when he visited. The Queen, of course, usually wore rings.
Something like a non-physical pain seized his middle making his breathing difficult. After Nell went back to Avalon, after she was returned to her family, all he’d see of her were those evenings when his family got invited in to discuss important magic policy points. She’d give him her hand to kiss…
He realized his eyes wanted to fill with water, and he refused to allow it. Stupidity. Of course she was the princess of Avalon and of course she had to go back. He might have used her parents’ grief to get her to understand this, but her parents’ grief was true nonetheless. And also, the kingdom needed her. Without her… He refused to think about it.
The king had refused to name a successor because, of course, naming a successor was the same as admitting his only, beloved daughter was either dead, or gone so far from this world that she might as well be dead, for all she’d never come back.
And neither the king, nor his father, nor yet his father’s father had had any siblings. Four generations back, there was a numerous family of seven girls and two boys. All the girls and the younger boy had been married to royal houses in Europe. If the king died without descendants – or with no descendant able to come back and claim the throne – the isles would fall pray to the dynastic ambitions of a dozen ducal families in the kingdom itself, who would claim their distant relationship to the king – on the level of Seraphim’s own, at least five generations back and more – was preferable to turning the kingdom over to strangers. At the same time, the territorial ambitions of Europe would be unleashed too, and he doubted that there would be a kingdom small enough not to send at least a second son to stake a claim. Even the Portuguese royal family were cousins, he thought. And the Low Countries too.
Behind his eyes, which closed in an attempt to block out his thoughts, images of armies descending on his beloved homeland and laying it to waste while killing its peasants and raping its magic passed like a blood-soaked painting succeding another.
He was called back from these troubling visions, by a slap of a card on the table. “This,” Nell’s voice said, slowly. “Is the questioner, who I think for this purpose must be you, as you’re the only other person present, and one involved in this matter.” She lay down the king of Clubs and Seraphim grinned at it, because he suspected half of Avalon would expect him to be the king of hearts in any reading. But clubs was more like it. His was wealth acquired by work – or at least it would be, if he had his way. Right now the wealth was largely imaginary. Even his exalted position – before this adventure – was something precarious that only work could secure to him.
“And this,” Nell said. “Is myself – since I’m also involved in this matter.” She lay the queen of Hearts over the top of the King of Clubs, crosswise. That not-quite physical pain troubled Seraphim once more. The Queen of Hearts. A woman who represented home. As Nell must, being the rightful princess of Avalon. A woman who represented love– His brain skittered away from that thought.
Over the last few days, he’d been closer to Nell Felix than he’d ever expected to be to a woman not related to or married to him. She’d helped him with details of every day life and shown him the mysteries of zippers, among many others, which had required a level of closeness he’d not expected to have with a decent woman not betrothed to him.
Truth be told, before his discovery of her origins, he’d thought that he would have to do the decent thing and marry her. Where this would leave him with Honoria, was not something he wanted to contemplate. It was quite possible that Honoria had severed her relationship to him in his absence, particularly since he was fairly sure he was now considered a fugitive to justice. If not, then he must perforce jilt her when he returned, and marry Nell.
He was fully aware that in either case this would cause a rift between the two houses, possibly for generations. Though he supposed, Michael being sixteen, he could be offered as a husband to Honoria, a sacrificial lamb in Seraphim’s place. Michael, being who he was, and married already to his inventions, was likely not to notice a forcible marriage, anyway. He’d drift gently through the ceremony, then disappear into his workshop to sketch a magic powered ring-bearer.
The image made him smile, and then he remembered both that Michael was a captive in fairyland, and might well be dead now, and that he could not possibly marry Nell. She was the princess of Avalon. The ROYAL princess of Avalon. What talk had there been of her marriage, over the years, should she return? Something about Francis of France. Seraphim shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He hoped not. The rumors about Francis were almost as ugly as those about the fellow that Penny had taken up with at Cambridge. They were definitely as … odd. Such a marriage, royal or not, was not likely to result in the harmonious union that the current monarchs enjoyed. It would also probably not result in children. Unless– He put an end to the thought, quickly, before it could fully form. He was not his father.
Nell was out of his reach by position and birth. And anything of an underhanded nature, anything disrupted of the vows of marriage – undertaken for love or by duty – would be beneath his honor. He sighed audibly, and realized that Nell had lay a row of cards above them.
He stared down at the ace of diamonds; the three of diamonds; and eight of clubs; a ten of clubs; an ace of clubs. He looked up at Nell and waited for her interpretation, knowing there were as many interpretations as readers, and it was important to know what the one scrying thought it all meant.
“These are the roots of the trouble,” she said, her eyes troubled. The long, elegant index touched cards. The three of diamonds, “Legal trouble, or trouble with the law. I think this is a given, for you and me, both.” The eight of clubs, “This trouble would seem to result from jealousy and greed – though I don’t know whose.” The ten of clubs. “Travel to distant lands.” Her lips quirked. Then her finger pushed at the ace of diamonds, bringing it out of the row. “This one is troubling, because I have no idea what it means – I get a strong feeling it refers to a piece of jewelry.”
“Perhaps it is your pendant,” Seraphim said.
She inclined her head, though apparently not convinced. “And the ace of clubs. This represents happiness and wealth,” she said. “And I fail to see how that can be at the root of our problems.”
This time Seraphim inclined his head, acknowledging his own confusion.
“These,” she said, rapidly slapping cards down. “Are the people and things who can help us.”
The Jack of clubs, the Jack of hearts, the Queen of clubs, the Queen of spades, and a five of spades. Nell frowned at this array at the feet of the two original cards, then, rapidly, reached into the deck an covered the Jack of clubs with a cross wise Jack of Spades, and then over the two, slanted, set the four of clubs and the six of diamonds. Then she seemed to regard this mess, and the whole row with a look of utter bewilderment. “Uh,” she said, and scratched her nose, in an endearingly young-looking gesture. “That, I think, your Grace, must stand for your family, but… Is your mother perhaps contemplating a second marriage?”
“What?” the exclamation was wrenched from him, uncouth bluntness and all.
Nell sighed. “Well,” she said. “I’d assumed this,” she set her finger on the Queen of Spades. “Was your mother. It usually stands for a widowed lady. And this,” her finger on the Queen of clubs, “I assumed was your sister Caroline, who seems self-willed and intelligent.”
“She is that.”
“And this,” the Jack of hearts, “Would stand for your brother…” She paused, seeming bewildered. “Either of your brothers, to be sure. Since it often stands for a male relative.”
“To be sure,” Seraphim agreed.
“But this,” she pointed to the small pile. “Is clearly someone about to embark on a second marriage which is fraught with perils and complications. And, as you know, the Jack, can stand for either male or female. Usually for young, but not always.”
Seraphim felt a sick lurch in his stomach. His mother had been widowed long enough and surely she was allowed to marry again. But what if she chose unwisely? He would go a long way to keep her from hurt. She had told him nothing of another relationship. What would she keep from him?
But Nell’s hands were rapidly slapping down another row of cards: the two of spades, the Nine of Spades, ten of spades, the three of spades and the four of clubs. Her finger pointed as she said, “Gossip and intrigue; bad luck in all things, destruction and deaths; imprisonment and unwelcome news; unfaithfulness and broken partnership; changes for the worse, lies and betrayal. That seems to be at the root of our troubles.”
“Intrigue me,” he said. “I’d have thought that we had been plunged into this by loving kindness and a wish to help us.”
“Don’t be scathing,” she said. “It is clearly trying to tell us there is a vast conspiracy underlying this all.”
“That too we could have gathered.”
“Undoubtedly.” The finger poked at the ten of spades. “This one worries me. Whose imprisonment?”
“Michael’s maybe,” Seraphim said. “Or yours being sent to this world.”
“Very possible, and in fact part of it, I sense,” she said. “But I also sense that’s not complete. There is more in this.”
“No, I mean, there are other people imprisoned.”
Seraphim’s stomach lurched again. “I’ve had dreams,” he said. “It is very possible that even now Gabriel is in jail.” He tried not to think of what the law thought of half-elves and how harshly it dealt with those unpredictable creatures. “It is my ambition to bring him out safely before they can do one of the curious things they love doing to half elves, like stripping him of his magic.”
Nell almost let the pack of cards fall. “Strip him of– Is that even possible?”
“Very possible. If you don’t mind destroying the mind with it.” To her credit, she looked as sick at this as he felt. “That,” she said. “Must not be allowed.”
She slapped a row of cards down. “These are the people arrayed against us,” The three of clubs, covered by the nine of hearts; the seven of hearts; the nine of clubs; the king of spades. After a while, and hesitating, she covered the king of spades with the eight of hearts. “Someone who is making a marriage or attempting to make a marriage to gain advantage from his partner.” Honoria. Seraphim’s stomach lurched. “But it’s covered by the dream card. This marriage is a key to all this person’s hopes and dreams.” Honoria. He really was an abominable cad, Seraphim thought. Well, he would marry her, then. It wasn’t as though he could marry Nell. “And unfaithful, unreliable person who breaks his promises.” Seraphim’s mind lurched to that damned necromancer that Gabriel had got enmeshed with. Seraphim should have killed him. But at the last minute, the man’s gallant deloping at their duel – firing into the air, which admitted his guilt in the matter – had touched Seraphim’s compassion. At least the cad and the filthy necromancer knew he was a cad and a filthy necromancer. Seraphim’s hand had deviated a few inches and not got him through the heart. A mistake that. He’d make sure the hunt to find him resumed. Yes, as a half elf, he was likely to be put to death for Necromancy. But then better that than endangering Penny. “A new lover or admirer to whom you should not be resistant.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s among the people or things that might either attack us or array to make our life difficult. How would I know. It’s probably your mistress or something.”
“I don’t have a mistress.”
“No? Gossip would have you any half a dozen of them.”
“Indeed. Carefully laid gossip, m’dear. The truth is I can’t afford a single mistress, much less six.”
“Very well then,” she said, and pursed her lips, in clear disapproval of his morals, which made his having a mistress or not a question of money, not of heart. “It might be a relationship for someone else. I daresay it will become clear.”
“I daresay, like most scrying, probably much too late.”
“Indeed,” she agreed. “And these.” She tapped on the juxtaposed cards. “These are – or is, perhaps – an ambitious, authoritative man and a” she frowned. “An intruder. Someone from elsewhere.”
“Covering the ambitious man?”
“Yes, not merely involved with him, which would be crosswise, but covering.”
“Oh,” Seraphim said. He shook his head. “Someone from… An elf? A changeling?”
She started. “Yes. Yes. Definitely that.”
Seraphim sighed. “Not a surprise. They are involved in this to their black hearts, I’d say. It worries me, because Gabrie–”
At that moment, they both felt it: like a tearing midair that indicated someone had opened a portal nearby. Nell dropped the cards and ran out the kitchen door, Seraphim following more slowly, out the door, past the small patio, through the gate in the fence, to a field they’d watched the mechanical plows – Nell called them tractors – dig up the day before.
In the middle of the field were two men, one of them standing and swaying on his feet. “Mr. Penn,” Nell said. “But who is it with him?”
Seraphim stared, “The damned necromancer,” he said. “But why is he digging in the dirt with his bare hands?”