*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. *
Sugar And Spice
Nell was not stupid – or at least she thought to herself, she tried not to be more stupid than she needed to be. And right then, she thought, it meant not going into those marble halls of fairyland unarmed. So she reached blindly and found the neck of the bottle that had been labeled “drink me.” Given that it was not the best of weapons. She should have brought a hunting knife or even a gun, though if her studying of magic in Avalon meant anything, depending on what spells were on this place, guns might have behaved very oddly.
*Well,* she told herself. *Never mind that. Everything can be a weapon. After all, I can use this bottle to bean people on the head. And besides, there is a very good chance if someone annoys me enough I can grab him and make him drink this. There is a good chance whatever is in here is as good as that apple.*
She blinked at the liquid, ruby-red and sparkling unnaturally, then walked into the marble hall. From inside it came the whir of machinery and she thought how odd it was that there would be machinery in fairyland. Then closer, she heard as if the sound of many voices, all talking at once.
That was fine. She would find the voices. And she would figure out what they were doing, and what was happening with the Darkwaters, too. Suppressing a thought about what might be happening to one Darkwater, and what it might mean that her heart clenched at the thought of his being in trouble, she walked down the marble hall, thinking that it sparkled very oddly indeed. Marble and magic? It made an odd sound underfoot, too, as though she were walking on fresh ice on a winter morning at the farm.
Cautiously, wearily she turned a corner… and blinked again, as her eyes adjusted to the impossible.
The corridor stretched on, white and sparkling, and that was not the shocking thing. What was shocking was that to her right there was a door, and standing in front of the door – on either side – were clockwork soldiers.
They looked like something out of a Christmas play, all red uniforms and round faces painted with very red cheeks and large, black eyes. Their tall helmets were adorned with plumes. They held golden lances. And they were clearly, unmistakably tin, and had large wind-up keys sticking out of their backs.
As she took a step towards them, they both turned to stare at her and Nell’s hair rose up at the back of her neck. It was their eyes. Painted eyes which were little more than black dots, should not be alive, nor should they follow one’s movements. And they shouldn’t have a sort of dreadful, intent expression.
She lifted her arm, pulling the bottle back, then let fly. It hit the helmet of the nearer tin man, then fell. It hit the wall and shattered, and liquid ran out, eating at the marble floor. The tin men advanced towards her. And now she didn’t have a weapon.
And then she thought that food of fairykind was corrosive and possibly lethal to humans, then wouldn’t it…
She eased the backpack strap off her left shoulder, let the backpack swing forward, all the while stepping back out of the risk of the tin men golden lances. Without looking, she reached in, felt for the boxes of crackers, tore one open, got two crackers, maneuvered the back pack onto both shoulders again. Then she held a cracker in each hand and ran.
The tin men started to swing the lances, but, of course, the problem of a tin man with clockwork innards is that they wouldn’t react that fast, would they?
So they were taken completely by surprise as she shoved a cracker into each of their gaping tin-cut mouths… And ran past towards the door they were guarding. She wasn’t even sure what would be behind that door, or why she should want to go there. But she knew for an absolute fact that she wanted to get past the tin men, and the door gave her something to interpose between her and those shiny golden lances.
She was barely aware of a sound of tinkle and whirr behind her, and then of tin objects falling – heavily. She didn’t turn.
To her surprise, the door opened when she pulled on the handle, and she stepped into…
It looked like a Victorian scientist’s mad dream. She had seen something like this in much smaller scale in the Darkwater’s country residence. The place where the young Michael worked.
Here, it was bigger, and filled with more tin creatures. They ran huge complicated machines, they sawed glimmering sheets of copper in half, they ran here and there carrying buckets of stuff.
In the middle of all of it, like a maestro conducting a complicated symphony, stood… She saw him from the back and swallowed, and opened her mouth to say “Seraphim!” before she realized that while the dark curls were the same and the general proportions similar, this person was smaller – smaller even than Gabriel Penn who resembled the duke in everything but size and height.
The word died on her lips, but she must have made some sound, because the young man turned around. He did look like Seraphim, but she now perceived he must be the same age as Seraphim’s sister. He was as yet beardless, his skin pale and clear like his sister’s. And his green eyes, so much a Darkwater trait, sparkled from beneath goggles of beaten copper and strangely sparkling glass.
He looked at her, his eyes wide open. “Who are you?” he asked. “And what are you doing here.”
And then she realized it wasn’t just the glass that sparkled. His eyes were wide but empty, seeing but unseeing. They could see her, and yet they didn’t, and she realized she would not be able to reason with him.
The realization came just in time, as his eyebrows drew together abroad his patrician nose, and he said, “You’re not supposed to be here. There were guards.” He frowned towards the open door, then looked at the people around him – no, the tin men around him, and lifted a hand.
Before he said anything, she knew he was going to order them to seize her. Also, she could see, around him the netting of strong magic, and she knew the personality that had formed it. She also knew that though she might have powerful magic, she couldn’t dent the magic of the king of fairyland. She could control simple minds under his power, but not the mind of a fully reasoning and seemingly smart young man.
Then she thought this was a trap, like the Alice in Wonderland room. If she played by the rules, she would lose. The food of fairyland… Okay. This was the equivalent, likely, of throwing the apple in that room. Before Michael Ainsling could order her seized, she remembered that people under spells were by nature slow and gullible. She said, aloud, “Wait. I came to bring you a message. Let me see…”
She swung the backpack from her shoulder, got a bottle of water from inside, and, before the young man could react to the strangeness of the packaging, pushed it at him, cap removed. “Drink.”
He hesitated for a moment, and she thought that he was going to order his tin people to catch her. But his mouth was open, and he was holding the bottle. It was possible she couldn’t do anything, but she had to try. Reaching out, she grabbed his wrist, and shoved the bottle towards his face. Water splashed on him, a great deal of it bathing his face, but some must have gone into his mouth, because he screamed and lifted his hands to wipe at his face, and the threads of the golden spell-net around him snapped.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “What are you–”
The bottle had fallen at their feet and the water was gurgling out, corroding the marble. Michael looked at her, his eyes awake and intent for once. “You–” he said, and blinked. “Who are you?”
And then, with a startled look around “And where am I?”
Nell opened her mouth but never spoke. The ground behind her was crackling like egg shells, the tin people were converging towards them, and, suddenly, from the ceiling above, something fell. No. Someone. No. Several someones. She had the impression of three people, two male one female, all dark haired. They fell between Nell and Michael. The ground gave way beneath them, and suddenly they were all falling, all of them, towards a darkness punctuated with pinpoints of stars.
Suddenly, as suddenly as they’d fallen, they stopped. It took a moment for Nell to realize they’d fallen on a black, huge, open net, and that the net was gathering at the top, like a sack closing. As this brought her in contact with the other prisoners: Miss Ainsling, Michael, Mr. Pen, and a young man dressed like an ancient Greek, it occurred to her, to look up, to where the marble floor appeared corroded as well as fractured. Light from above shone through it too. The sound of crackling under her feet came back to her mind and she said, “Sugar.”
“Oh, no,” Mr. Penn said. “I think it’s quite all right to say shit in these circumstances, your highness.”
“No, I mean the floor is made of sugar.”
“Ah,” he said, his brow creasing. “Yes. My uncle is… whimsical. He derives–” Deep breath. “A great deal of power from the dreams of childhood.”
And at that moment, as though on cue, the sickly-sweet, threatening voice came out of the big void beneath them, “By the rules, I had to let your find your brother, Miss Ainsling. I didn’t say I had to let any of you go.”