*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/
The Threads of Time
Caroline knew this was a dangerous spell, but she’d seen Gabriel do something like it. Not to this level, she thought, as she stared at the wounds on the dragon-woman’s back. She needed to reach for a time when the woman’s back had been whole, and superimpose it on her mutilated back.
Of course, doing that in fairyland might be more difficult than doing it in the human world. Or at least more dangerous. But Caroline had realized long ago that you didn’t have a choice between something you really liked, and something you dreaded. Or not usually. You had a choice between two things that were both unpleasant, and you tried to choose between them for the least unpleasant one.
In this case, she could choose to ignore the woman’s need and keep herself safe. But then it was unlikely she would be allowed to walk the rest of the paths of fairyland till she found Michael. And even if she were, she wouldn’t have the allies she was supposed to acquire through her journey. She knew the rules of fairyland. Everyone did. They were built in to the earliest stories told to the smallest children. In fairyland, you had to help three people in desperate straights, and then – after you did that – you’d get where you wanted to go. Distance in fairyland wasn’t straightforward, or measured in meters. It was measured in feelings and the heart, and three good deeds were the sacrifice needed to get where she was going.
To rescue her brother Michael.
She pulled back a strand of her thick, curly black hair. It felt clammy. All of her felt clammy, as if the clearing had suddenly got very hot. The dragon woman turned back to look at Caroline over her shoulder. Her eyes were the oddest Caroline had ever seen, a golden-orange, as though it had flecks of fire burning in its depths.
“I’m going to do something…” she said, and looked into the woman’s eyes, and swallowed. “I’m going to use magic that might feel odd to you. Please, bear in mind, I do it only from the best intentions. It is the only way to heal you.”
The large, fiery eyes blinked. “Do it, then,” she said, intently. “Do it and be done with it. I cannot bear to be captive here while my baby might need me. Do what you have to do, no matter the risk. You were sent to me by the paths, they must know you can heal me.”
Caroline wished she could be anywhere near that certain. She put her hands up and recited the incantory protections for when one worked with time. For all the good it would do her, here, in the heart of a place built entirely of magic, and while using the magic on a sentient being.
She was going to die of this. No. She banished the thought, forcefully, and lifted her hands, to let the magic flow through her palms, onto its destination.
Then she did what she dimly remembered watching Gabriel do. She remembered seeing it – and she might have – though it would have required her to link to his mind and look through his mind’s eyes. Perhaps she had. She had been very young and very unguarded, and Gabriel, too, hadn’t guarded against her.
Because of that, she could remember the mental vision of time as a tapestry. She’d once seen a tapestry weaving machine. Michael had wanted to see one of the new manufactories, operated almost exclusively by magic, where men did no more than feed thread to the machines, and clip the finished product, or clean around the working, moving parts of the machine.
She and Michael had escaped through the window of their nursery while their nanny was asleep and walked down to the village, where one of the manufactories was. It had taken them the best part of the day, and when they’d been found – through a spell cast – Seraphim had collected them in the carriage. She remembered being afraid he was finally going to give them the spanking that he and Gabriel so often threatened Caroline and Michael with. In retrospect, though, she thought what he had done: sitting white faced and tight lipped next to her in the carriage for the full hour drive back home, had been far worse. As had the fact that neither Seraphim nor Gabriel smiled at or talked to Caroline or Michael for a good two months.
The manufactory itself she hadn’t thought about till now. Michael had been fascinated by the gleaming, moving parts, the thread moving into place, all without the touch of human hands. Caroline had looked at the people cleaning accumulated lint from the machines, or feeding them the colored thread. They were children, little older – or perhaps younger – than herself. It was the first time she’d been aware of her good fortune and her station in life.
Now, though, as she reached for the threads of time, she saw it exactly as that machine in that long ago manufactory. There were threads – the life of each person, the path of each object everywhere – being fed into time, and what emerged was the completed tapestry. Reaching out, she touched the mind-seen strands mid-air. There were Caroline and Michael going to see the manufactory. There was Gabriel, coming in in the middle of Seraphim’s birthday party, in that outlandish outfit, all rags, with the livid marks of whip marks across his face and the exposed parts of his skin.
Caroline blinked at this. She’d been born after Gabriel had joined the house, and she was quite sure that, though she’d heard him described as filthy and covered in rags, she’d never heard of whip marks. Whip marks why? Who’d dare whip the child of the Duke of Darkwater – even if a bastard son? She blinked, and shelved the thought for another day. For a moment that thread, and the one next to it – Gabriel and… she blinked again – Seraphim’s? gleamed with the bright blue of strong magic. It was tempting to see what was happening to them. But she could not. Not in the middle of this working.
Instead, she concentrated on the thread of the dragon lady – a thread of pure fire woven through the tapestry. It was tangled and twisted, and ran along side two other threads, both of which seemed to merge with those of the Darkwater family. If Caroline had time–
Enough of this foolishness. She didn’t have time. Instead, she ran her fingers along the length of the thread displayed by magic in front of her eyes, but in fact existing in dimensions humans couldn’t see.
There. There was the last time this … person had been whole. Now…
Carefully, Caroline took the time thread betweent wo fingers. She couldn’t cut it and retie it, as Gabriel had done to the bird’s thread. The bird had just been injured, and, presumably, its thread had touched no one’s fate but that of the cat who had dragged it. This woman’s fate was enmeshed with various others – men, women, and possibly elves. If Caroline cut the thread and tied it again, she would do damage to all those fates, and all of those people’s magic and – by extension – her own. The recoil itself would kill it.
The recoil of this… She tried not to think about it. No point in it. Instead, she took the thread and carefully, deftly, looped it around her fingers.
Touching that much power, that much strength, gave her an almost physical shock. And as she grasped it to tie it together at the base of the loop, bringing the woman’s whole body in close proximity to this moment, she felt as though her fingers burned with it. Her every instinct told her to let go, to let the thread fall into its natural position, to leave it alone.
The instincts were wrong. She must – she must – rescue Michael. She bit her lip against the pain and the burn that was forming welts in her small fingers, and forcefully tied the knot.
“Oh!” the woman said, and it sounded like some of Caroline’s pain had rebounded on her. Her face flashed white and drawn, then for a moment it seemed about to change into a dragon’s. But Caroline did not let go of it the thread. She was not done.
Holding the thread and the woman’s life and existence through time, in her hands, she closed her eyes and forced those missing parts of her body – the clipped wings – forward through time and in existence in the presence.
She would never be able to explain it, but it felt as though the wings, on their way to the present, passed through Caroline’s own body, and her magic. Her body they could not have passed through. Not really. But her magic, they might have, and it felt as though every sharp bit, every rough surface shredded her magic on the way through, leaving it bleeding and torn, like skin raked by claws and teeth.
Nausea hit afterwards, a nausea so strong that Caroline felt she could neither keep her eyes open, nor focus, nor even stand. The threads fell from her suddenly lax fingers, and snapped into the tapestry, the loop still in place. Her fingers hit the grass of the clearing. She was aware of the threads vanishing from her magic sight, but she couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate. She clutched her middle. She closed her eyes. Nausea ebbed and flowed in her like a tide, and she groaned with the feeling that her body was made of nausea, a sharp point of discomfort and uncertainty, dissolving and twisting through the currents of time.
I shall dissolve completely and be gone, she thought, and whimpered with fear, thinking Gabriel had been right. Of course he had. And it wouldn’t be needed for him to punish her. She was going to die of this.
“Thank you,” the woman’s voice said somewhere, outside her misery. “If you need me, at any time and anywhere, call out to the dragon of the fire lake. I am in your debt.” And then there was the sound of wings and a feeling of unbearable heat.
Caroline opened her eyes, to find herself enveloped in flames. Looking up, she saw the dragon, flying just above her, and blowing flames from its – her? – nostrils, which surrounded Caroline completely.
No. I saved you, she thought. You’re not supposed to kill me.
But the fire wasn’t killing her. Hot, yes, but not lethal, it twined around her, an ocean of living flames. It seemed to move through her, searing. It was as though every weak place in her magic, every slow place, were burned away, leaving only the best, clear and glimmering in the firelight.
And then it was gone. There was the impression of words in her mind “A gift of gratitude” and then the dragon was gone, flying away and through, to another time and another place.
Caroline didn’t know what the gift had been, and now she couldn’t asked. She stood up. The nausea was gone, but she felt as though she’d run for miles and miles. Her breath came in short pants, her body was sweaty, the clothes sticking to her. And her eyes seemed to prickle with sweat that had run into them. And she was thirsty. But you can’t eat or drink in fairyland.
On shaky legs, she made to take a step towards where she hoped the path was.
She heard the sound of hooves from behind and before she could turn to look, a male arm twined around her middle, and a voice said, “We have need of you.”
At first she thought it was a rider, and that he was bare from the waist up. Then she realized it was a centaur who had got hold of her and was carrying her, held only by his strong arm, while his hooves galloped madly into a shifting landscape of fog.