*I am reliably informed I miscounted chapters and this should be 76. Sigh. I’m taking it on faith. And yes, I know, I’m doing it in dribs and drabs. Yes, the end is very near, but after Noah’s Boy I find I can only do a very little a day, and the mind has fixated on — of all things — house cleaning. So there is floor waxing, may the Lord have mercy on us all. However, I’ll try to keep these daily as much as possible, so you don’t starve.*
*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. *
King and Kingdom
It was dark and dank, and smelly. Gabriel’s first thought was that he was within a rat’s warren, or another such passage, built by creatures who, by night, live from the bounty of humanity’s building.
All Gabriel’s wishing this way didn’t work, and though he ordered with all his kingly might, he realized it would not go away. Dark, and dank, and suffocating, the twisting paths led, by crooked paths like the random weavings of worm upon wood ever downward, ever tighter.
“I can’t wish it away” he thought, because this is the true thing. This is what is beneath all the spun sugar, all the mechanical soldiers, all the cloying, false sweetness was just that, false. This is what underlay fairyland, a narrow complex of tunnels getting every smaller, ever tighter, like something a creature would spin while getting away from light and from life, and perhaps from sanity.
The tunnels got progressively narrower, and their surface had a weathered look, which puzzled Gabriel, because what was there to weather them here, deep in the heart of a magical kingdom and away from everything that might touch them. There was no rain in fairyland, no currents of deep rivers.
No, Fairlyland was all a thing of the mind.
Shortly, the tunnels got so narrow that Gabriel was walking them hunched forward, his head bent. They smelt of rats. It was a smell Gabriel knew well from his wretched childhood, a smell that made the hairs rise up at the back of his head, that made the bile rise up at the back of his throat.
He felt as though he were back there, in the narrow rented lodgings, lying in the dark, covered by the thin coverlet that somehow seemed to make one feel colder and to confer no comfort, waiting for the sound of feet behind the soffit, for the smell of rats, for the horrid feeling of their feet running across you.
Once, during a cold winter night, a rat had bit him on his toe, and it had taken forever to heal.
But there could be no smell of rats here, and yet when Gabriel tried to banish it, he couldn’t. There was nothing there but the smell of rats and the narrow tunnels, and everything that was powerful in him told him these could not be altered because they were the true thing.
It took him a while – and by this time he was on hands and knees, for him to realize why this was the true thing. The smell of rats was how his mind translated poverty. And fairyland was poor. Fairyland had defaulted, to Gabriel, to its ultimate existence without disguise: poor, narrow, ever tightening and ever more convoluted. A dark place, spinning every tighter.
It came to him that when it was so tight it would barely fit him would be when he would find the present monarch. It came to him that his teacher had been right. Fairyland was a parasite among the worlds, floating free, and sucking life and magic out of everything it touched.
How could he want to be the monarch of such a thing? How could anyone but a madman want to rule a parasite-land.
But no. An instinctive recoil, a knowledge deeper than was possible to have from his lifetime, spoke to Gabriel out of the depths of racial memory. This was what fairyland was now, yes, because it had a madman at its center, a madman who had been ruling it for centuries, and who had spun off all his own magic, so that he need now feed off other worlds and off unfortunates kidnapped for the purpose. Like Michael had been. Raphael’s stomach lurched at the knowledge that there had been many others, adults and children alike, who had been used for this purpose, and who had not been rescued until they were but dry husks, sucked dry of magic and life.
And at the same time the king had needed to suck dry the magic of other worlds – which was where his mad pact with Sidell came in. If Sidell were king, he’d promised the king that he could have the choice of magic from Avalon, until there were no true magic left there.
Gabriel shook his head. It was not supposed to be like that. He knew, knew with his whole being. There had been other kings and things had been different then.
When a strong king stood at the center of fairyland, he generated magic that fed the whole land and which in turn fed magic to every world that connected into it.
Gabriel, now crawling into the very narrow, very deep darkness at the heart of fairyland, thought “But that would mean you wouldn’t be you, any longer. It would be an organic thing. Humans call it king, but it isn’t, not really. Generator, perhaps. Or… or servant.” The thought of how many years he had been a servant came and went in his mind without protest. He hadn’t liked it, but it was far better than his years of hunger, his years of despair.
And then he thought that this would be worse. Not servant, servant, but a service that reached into your mind, into your heart, into your very being.
He’d stood by the side of ballrooms and watched the couples, and kept an outwardly respectful appearance while keeping his own thoughts, while meditating on the shortcomings of the people around him, while finding their folly funny.
This indenture would allow no such relief. Once he became fairyland’s … ruler for lack of a better word, he’d have to keep on with it. Everything he did, everything he thought would reflect itself upon the land.
Any love, such as mortals knew love, that he might have, would have to restrain itself to time away from fairyland, and those would have to be very brief, very limited moments, or else, fairyland would feel his absence and reach out for someone else – for something else that would feed its magic.
Gabriel knew of a certainty, suddenly, that there had also been other dark kings before. Here at the heart of fairyland, the instinctive knowledge of fairyland’s history was impossible to avoid. The land knew, and knowing, communicated itself to him. There had been other kings, worse even than this one, kings who had forced the land to reach outward and enslave humans to its will, and demand human sacrifice to feed itself.
There had also been kings who’d send their beings forth to kill and commit mayhem, to harvest life to feed fairyland.
Fortunately Gabriel had had a very moral upbringing, despite his father’s failings and his mother’s irregularities. The thought passed through his mind, and made him smile, but it was followed by the thought there was nothing fortunate about it. He wouldn’t be able to convince himself that it was right and just to leave fairyland to gratify his whims, or even his dreams, for long enough to cause it to go out of control. His uncle had left fairyland in pursuit of his obsessions. That those obsessions were judged by humans to be vile made no difference at all to what they did to the land. Gabriel’s own dreams might be considered by some to be vile, also, but—
A thought of an almost discarded – almost but for their renewed acquaintance – youthful dream of living in Marlon’s lodgings, of growing old with him, in the quiet house filled with books, now that the ghost-lover was gone, came and went. He thought of Marlon, at sixty, that flame-bright hair gone pale, sitting by the fire, reading, and then released the thought.
It would likely never have been like that for them, anyway. And at any rate, Gabriel knew better. You couldn’t just not do your duty and collect all the rewards of doing your duty. He couldn’t simply wish that fairyland were healed and not step into the role of king. He was the only one who could heal fairyland, and anything worth having was worth paying for.
Anything that big was worth dying for.
He was now crawling through a tunnel so narrow that he could barely breathe. It couldn’t go on much longer. His uncle must be somewhere ahead. Should he go forward? Or was he unwilling to pay the price?
Ahead, in the dark, he saw red, glowing eyes, like a trapped rats.
He thought back to an Autumn day in Darkwater, walking in the garden, and seeing the gardener pour something into a hole. He remembered the day so clearly – it had been shortly after his father had brought him there – that he could feel the strange comfort of the woolen overcoat, the softness of the muffler around his neck, and feeling quite odd in these clean clothes, and in the half-deference the staff gave him – because everyone knew whose get he was. Even if they were in fear of his fey nature, there was no denying with that face, he was the lord’s son, and therefore, they’d called him Master Penn and touched their hats at him.
And the gardener had done just that and said “As it is rats, master Penn, and they’ve been going all under the forcing houses, and the way to get rid of them is to stop all their entrances and exits with pitch, and to let them starve.”
He thought “I’m stopping the entrance and the exit.” And then realized he was wrong. Yes, this tunnel was fairyland, and his uncle’s mind was at its end, starved and stoppered. But to starve him – to stop his exits… It meant cutting off his food – cutting off… his access to fairyland, stopping everything he was, and everything he could be.
“Yes,” Gabriel said, and reached for the threads leading from his uncle to everything that was fairyland.
It came to him the only way to cut those threads was to attach them to himself. To make himself the center, the spin of them. To let them eat him alive.
“Yes,” he said, though it felt like his lips had gone ice cold with saying it. Tears tried to spring to his eyes, but it was too late. Everything in fairyland that needed feeding – and that was everything – attached to him: to his mind, to his body, to his essence.
He felt more than heard a scream from his uncle, the scream of a starving creature. Gabriel had starved. He felt a pang of pity.
But then he thought of the spun sugar, the cloying sweetness, the adults – and children – enticed, like wasps to a poisonous trap. Not let go till they were quite dead.
And he pulled the rest of fairyland to him.
He heard a shriek as all the force went out of the old king. If his father hadn’t, however belatedly, done his duty, Gabriel wouldn’t be alive, and wouldn’t be here. Well, Gabriel was his father’s son and late to his duty, but he meant to do fulfill it, so that others might live.
And then fairyland exploded outward, into groves and rivers, into sacred glades and centaur meadows.
And Gabriel was in a white room, in the middle of a white palace, in a throne made of crystal, looking out over a vista of the realm that owned him.
He closed his eyes and bid farewell to his humanity.