*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. *
Mirror and Crown
A surfeit of sweetness, a cloying lack of self. For a while Gabriel Penn was suspended in both, his mind more a memory of having a mind than a real thought, or real memories.
Then, from, in this place with no past, no future, no self, came the sound off footsteps, punctuated with the sound of a cane tapping cobblestones, not in the way of someone who needed help walking, but in the way of a dandy on the way to a concert or the opera.
That image – that memory – summoning up the very idea of memories and images and a world outside Gabriel’s head, brought with it other images. He saw himself as an unfortunate fly, surrounded by a cocoon, suspended from a web, being devoured. He saw himself as a spun sugar figurine dissolving in puddle on between cobblestones, on a street more familiar than it should be.
He put his back to that street, to that memory. Like a man bracing himself against a physical object in order to leverage his physical power, he put his mental back to that street – the streets he remembered, the streets that he’d seen, just before—
He was in the middle of the look-alike London, empty as the real London had never been. It was raining. Rain guttered from the roofs, fell into gutters, sang merrily along the gutters to join the other, overflowing effluvium.
Gabriel was an adult, and his clothes were soaked. He understood the necessity of the rain. The phrase “a bucket of cold water” ran through his head like a clue, but he didn’t need it. He needed the feel of cold on his skin, he clammy feel of his soaked wool trousers clinging to his legs, the feel of that trickle of water down from his head down the back of his neck and his spine, under his already soaked shirt. He could feel his hair plastered to his scalp and his face. He imagined he must look like a drowned rat. But what he looked like didn’t matter. He was not in any sense of the word somewhere physical.
He was in fairyland. The thought crossed his mind, with all the strength and urgency of a warning, and was followed by another: he’d been damn near dying in a trap. He was in a trap still.
The awareness of this made him even more aware of the steps and the tap tap of the cane approaching. He was in fairyland. Only two things operated here: his own mind, and the mind of his uncle, his opponent. One of them would emerge victorious from this struggle, and it must be Gabriel. It must because Gabriel was needed for fairyland to go on existing. And fairyland was needed… His thought cut off. He wasn’t sure why fairyland was needed. He suspected it was something he could not know until and unless he ascended to its throne. But he had a gut deep intuition it was needed. Else, why not have destroyed it, long ago?
So – where he was now, only two minds worked: his and his uncle’s.
“Not… quite,” an educated male voice said, and Gabriel spun around.
The man who stood between two buildings, as though he’d just emerged from an alleyway, was strangely familiar in a way that Gabriel could not place. He did not exactly look like Gabriel, but he was of the same type: dark hair, light eyes – in the man’s case a greyish blue – features that could be considered beautiful but which were still, undeniably, masculine. And his build was also the same, tall and slender, with powerful shoulders. When Gabriel looked up from surveying the man to the man’s face, he found the man was smiling. “Well?” he said, in the tone of someone who asks the answer to a riddle.
Gabriel frowned. “You must be spun by the king from my memories, but… I’m not quite sure…” Then he stopped. The man’s clothing, too, was soaked, dripping with water from every fiber, even as rain continued to pour down to soak the man’s hair and plaster it to his fine featured face. The fact that he stood there, under the cold downpour, grinning and looking debonair, as though he’d just emerged from the opera made everything worse, Gabriel thought.
As he watched, the man removed from his sleeve an immaculate white handkerchief hedged around with lace, and monogrammed with HG. Then, ignoring the fact that the handkerchief was as soaked as everything else, he mopped at his face with it, and said, “Do you like rain, oh, king?”
“I am not king,” Gabriel said, and frowned a little, because if the man were his uncle’s creation, then the rain would not affect him at all. The rain was Gabriel’s and the weaker effect. To think his uncle might be pretending that rain affected his own creations was to go one step too far. Gabriel knew the sort of mental state his unlce was in – none the better as he thought he’d been in his uncle’s mind and about to dissolve into it. It simply was not coherent enough for that kind of fiendish cunning.
“Truly?” the man said. “Are you not? Then why are you here? What are you doing?”
“My uncle—” Gabriel said. “The kingdom– The prophecy—” He couldn’t quite find a coherent point to make his start.
“You know the kingdom of fairyland goes by magic and power and the one who can hold it coherent and whole. Under those rules your uncle has lost it long ago, before your birth, in fact, and his continued holding of the nominal crown will destroy it and all of us.”
“All of us—” Gabriel said. “You don’t mean… That is, you are one of us?”
An eyebrow quirked, and the man gave him a smile between puzzled and amused. “You don’t remember me at all, Gabriel Penn. Do I look so different then?”
Through Gabriel’s mind ran half-remembered lapses of judgement. There had never been very many, and none of them had meant very much or gone very far. He’d been too afraid of sullying the Darkwaters by contagion, particularly after his incident with Marlon and how close it had come to being public. But there had been the man who’d kissed Gabriel – and soundly too – when Gabriel had brought him his horse after one of the Darkwaters’ parties. And there had been that man who’d stayed over and who’d—
But the thing was, the gentleman who’d kissed Gabriel had been so drunk, he’d probably not been aware that Gabriel was not female. Or else, he’d thought he was kissing Seraphim, something that made Gabriel smile even now. And the others… None of them had looked like this man. Gabriel would have remembered someone who looked somewhat like him.
Something fluttered at the back of his brain, like a bird trying to beat its way out of a cage, and Gabriel frowned and shook his head. “I don’t remember,” he said.
This got him a broad grin with a hint of malice… No, not malice, but malicious amusement, as though Gabriel were being particularly dumb and this delighted the stranger. An immaculate white hand was pushed forward, “Hayden Gypson at your service, your majesty.”
Gabriel had got hold of Gypson’s hand, which felt warm and smooth and alive in his, but the name made him let go of it and take a step back, with a strangled cry. “You’re not– You can’t be—”
“Why not?” he asked. “The problem is that my soul remains tragically attached to my body, because my soul isn’t able to die… to transition in the way souls do when the body dies. And this is a place of the soul and the mind, so here I am wholly alive. What?” he said, at what Gabriel felt must be the look of frozen horror on his own face. “Did you think I didn’t know? Did you think I was a passive victim? He never told you, did he? Of course he wouldn’t. He’s three parts foolish and one part– Never mind.”
“He never told me what?” Gabriel said, his throat closing. “Marlon—”
“He never told you why he did what he did or why it went so horribly awry. You should be aware that it betrays bad judgement on Marlon’s part. He clearly has a taste for cowards.”
Gabriel was too shocked to be offended. “I beg your pardon?” he said.
“I said, Marlon has a taste for cowards. He’s picked me and then you in quick succession. And I, you see, found it impossible to bear the double weight of not being quite human and never fully fitting in. He came to find that I had just killed myself – the idea that I’d died of an illness was his, and he was the one who put it about. Being a fool, he tried to bring me back. Only, I am, as much as he, elfborn. My mother was a nayad who– Never mind. He couldn’t quite bring me back, and once he’d done the magic – not being in full control of his own magic – he couldn’t kill me. And so we came to my problem. I’m afraid,” he said, and looked at the nails of his right hand, which Gabriel remembered yellow and dissicated and protruding from dried flesh but which were white and buffed and carefully trimmed, “It will take the king’s touch to set me free now.”
“But … How does that make me a coward?” Gabriel asked, and wanted to protest it wasn’t fair, that he would not be here if he were a coward, that he was here not out of his own ambition, but out of his wish to protect his family– That he—
“Well, King, if you aren’t a coward, why would you spend so many years running from yourself? So many years pretending to be just human. So many years hiding and running. And why would you now choose to let yourself be killed by a madman who can barely hold his kingdom together rather than take what is yours – the crown and the strength and the life of fairyland? Why wouldn’t you acknowledge what is yours and make it part of you?”
Gabriel opened his mouth. “Because I’m not—” he started, but that wasn’t quite true. He couldn’t say he wasn’t mostly magical, because he knew he was. The last few hours had shown that to him, if nothing else. “Because I can’t—” but at the back of his mind he knew that wasn’t true either. He could. It would just take… wanting it. Really wanting it. His uncle wanted fairyland because without it he’d cease to exist. Gabriel must want it like that. He must, like a man at the races, take a final bet and stake all. But he still thought Hayden had no idea how vulnerable Gabriel was, how wounded. “You don’t know what my childhood was.”
“Don’t I just. Do you think the orphanages for elf children are wonderful places, then? Has it occurred to you they might be worse?”
“No, king. Know yourself for what you are. Then take your crown.”
Gabriel blinked. He knew the man was right, and yet…
“First,” Hayden said, his voice clearn. “Set me free. And then go to your battle with my blessings. What remains of me in this world, hopefully a very little and for a very short time, will go with you, as will all my good wishes.”
“But I can’t—” Gabriel said, and then realized that he could. He could see a tangle as though of loose threads behind Hayden, and he knew they were the lines of magic holding him to his body and the world.
He reached with his hand, tried to break them. Nothing happened. Then Gabriel took a deep breath and told himself fhe was the king of Fairyland, this was his loyal subject, and he COULD.
His fingers moved forward as though of their own accord and pinched the threads. For a moment an expression of utter relief painted itself on Hayden’s face, then his fading form bowed and he said, “Farewell, oh king,” and he was gone.
Gabriel turned. He waved a hand. He didn’t need the rain. He didn’t need the street.
He narrowed his eyes to see the truth, the nebulous pathways of what remained of his uncle’s mind.
A hallway of spun sugar seemed to form. Brittle and cloying, Gabriel thought. About right.
But he waved that way too, and willed to see clearly, to see the true from.
It was time he claimed his crown.