The house at the fork in Hawes River was legendary among the Hawestone children, and adults alike. Many villages had such a house. Once grand, and fallen to ruin with only a lonely old man living in it, and rumoured to be haunted. Unlike most of these houses, the children of Hawestone never dared each other to sneak across the lawn or ring the bell and run away. This house really was haunted, by a strangeling no less.
Patrick smiled when the house came into view as he crossed the bridge over Hawes. A place of whispered horrors to others, it had always been a place of refuge for him.
The grizzled old sea captain sitting in the rocking chair on the porch stood up when he saw Patrick coming.
“Hello, Father,” Patrick said.
He called Neville father, because Neville liked him to, but privately Patrick could not think of him that way. Patrick knew too well who his father was.
“Where’ve ye been, lad,” said Neville.
“The river folk set off today. I was helping them leave.”
“Funny, I heard tell a group of the younger men went out trying to catch a strangeling. They’ve been gone all day.”
Patrick raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Really. Do you think they succeeded?”
Neville tried to look stern but the laugh lines around his eyes gave him away. “I expect not.” Neville beckoned to him. “Come on inside.”
Patrick followed Neville into the house.
“Someday this place is going to come crashing down on us,” Patrick said.
Neville let out a guttural cough of a laugh. “It’s stood for a hundred years and it’ll stand for a hundred more. Place is as stubborn as I am,” Neville said. “Unless some fools decide to set fire to it someday. Wouldn’t be surprised with this blood-child business. Can’t be over soon enough.”
Neville’s bushy gray eyebrows furrowed up as he scowled at the crack wooden floor.
Something was wrong, and it took a lot to get Neville worried.
The captain released a deep sigh. “In the morning, I want ye to follow them river folk. Go where ever it is they go and hide ‘till this is over.”
“I need you to be safe, that’s why.”
“I am safe. The villagers have been trying to kill me for years. They’re not going to succeed just because there’s a blood-child.”
“It’s not just them.”
Harnesses jingled, horses hooves clopped on the ground, and the wheels of a carriage crunched in the gravel road leading up the bridge.
“Someone’s coming,” said Patrick.
Neville snorted. “See? This is why we don’t need a dog. Not with you around.”
“Why would anyone take a carriage up here? They must be lost.”
The captain sucked in a sharp breath. “Get out of here, Patrick. I mean it, far as ye can.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“They ain’t after me. I promise. Now get out.”
Twice the captain had lied to him in the last five minutes.
With a bewildered glance over his shoulder, Patrick left out the back door. But instead of leaving, he climbed up the side of the house, and jumped into the old oak. No one would see him there.
The carriage rattled across the bridge and stopped in front of the house. On its side the carriage bore the mark of the king’s guard. He should have known. But why had they come at night? What did they want this time?
The sorcerer stepped out from the carriage first, dressed in the despicable black robes of the Inner Circle. He was followed by three other men in the red uniform of the royal guard. Patrick could see Unseelie faeries, creatures that looked like serpents with clawed feet, slithering all over the sorcerer and the men.
The sorcerer was a fascinator, able to bend the minds of others to do his bidding, but only because the faeries did it for him. No one else, not even the men themselves, were aware of the faeries’ presence. But Patrick was Seelie and they could not hide from him.
Neville stood on the porch, his arms crossed over his chest. “What’re ye doing here?”
“I’ve come to clear up a misunderstanding. I am told you refused an order from the king,” said the sorcerer.
“No misunderstanding, then. I won’t be part of sacrificing an innocent girl. Me nor Patrick. Ye won’t be rid of us so easily.”
Patrick’s eyebrows rose. They wanted him and Neville to go on the blood-child’s voyage? How stupid of them.
“Hm, I think not. Where is he, by the way?”
“He ain’t here.”
“I find it difficult to believe that your pet Black Dog would abandon you so easily.” The sorcerer gave a wicked smile. “Shall we whistle for him?”
One of the guards drew a pistol from his belt and pointed it at Neville, while another walked up to the captain and struck him, forcing the captain to his knees.
Patrick flinched. His fingernails dug into his palms and his teeth were bared in anger.
“Fine then,” said Neville. “Take me, but leave him. The boy has nothing to do with this.”
“On the contrary, Captain Spens. The strangeling has everything to do with this,” said the sorcerer.
“Doesn’t matter. He ain’t here, I told ye.”
“Then you’ll finally get what you deserve.”
Patrick swallowed. One of the guards carried a long hollow pole, with a rope threaded through it, looped at one end. The peacekeepers used something similar to control dangerous animals. He knew who it was meant for. But he had no choice.
“Shall I count to ten?” The sorcerer said.
Patrick dropped from the tree.
“Good.” The sorcerer smiled.
Patrick looked away. He stiffened, but did not move when the guard slipped the loop of rope over his head. The rope tightened around his neck, and the pole pulled him to the ground. He didn’t struggle, but the rope dug into his neck. He gasped, barely drawing air into his lungs.
“Stop it,” Neville barked. “Whatever ye want. I swear it will be done.”
“You will captain the voyage into the gulf, and this strangeling will guide it.”
Patrick clawed frantically at the rope crushing his windpipe, to no avail. The pain in his neck grew until it seemed to fill his consciousness.
“Yes, I swear.”
“That’s good.” The sorcerer watched with idle fascination as Patrick struggled fruitlessly to breathe.
One of the guards kicked him in the stomach, and darkness closed in over him. He heard Neville bellowing at the sorcerer, but it seemed to come from far away.
They’re trying to kill me, Patrick thought. Am I dying?
The world returned to him with a suddenness that made his head ache. Life-giving air flooded his lungs, eclipsing all else for the moment. Gradually awareness returned to him, and with it came pain. His hand moved to his neck, and he could feel the impression left on it by the rope.
When he opened his eyes, the king’s men were climbing back into the carriage. The sorcerer still stood outside. One of the phantom serpents crawled across his face.
“I would have liked to kill the strangeling. Remember that, should you consider breaking your word.” The sorcerer climbed back into the carriage
Neville stood shaking with rage, staring after the carriage rattling out of sight with murderous intent burning in his eyes.
“Ye alright, lad?” said Neville.
A deep, wolfish snarl erupted from Patrick’s tortured throat. He sprang to his feet, but staggered when the world spun.
“Someday, I swear,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Shush now, don’t talk. Come with me.”
Still dizzy, Patrick let Neville help him into the house, where Patrick fell into a chair in front of the cold hearth.
“Soon as yar able, ye go to them river folk. And this time ye leave.”
Patrick rubbed his aching neck. “I’m not going anywhere. Except into the gulf, evidently.” A smile touched his mouth. “I have a plan. They’ll regret this.”
“You have a plan,” Neville scoffed. “Why’d I go to all the trouble of saving ye from the gulf if yar bound to throw it all away going back?”
“I won’t repay you by letting you die. If I go they’ll kill you.”
Neville waved his arms in an angry, dismissive gesture. “Ah, I should’ve murdered ye then, ye wicked boy.”
Patrick took no notice of Neville’s ranting. “Yes, you probably should have.”
Thanks for reading. I will be posting new snippets every month until the novel’s release in the summer of 2018.