A Chapter I Removed from a Dark Fantasy Novel

21 Dec

I’m currently editing down the word count for a dark fantasy novel, The Vanquished and the Surviving (it’s a working title). It’s set in a slightly different Regency England, in which people called Sensitives have magic/psychic powers. Vincent, the protagonist, is a teenage boy who accidentally killed two powerful people shortly after they murdered his brother, Nathaniel, before his eyes. The novel is based on a dream.

This novel chronologically takes place right before my gothic novel, The Hauntings of Claverton Castle. Literary agents have rejected both novels, and I’ve come to realize that cutting down the word count in each novel will raise my chances of getting the books published.

*

On the eve of Yule, the most important winter holiday, Vincent occupied an armchair by the fireplace on the ground floor of the tower. The shutters were closed, and the only light in the room came from the blazing hearth and a candelabrum centered on the dining table. Though the shutters were sturdy enough wood, they didn’t entirely muffle the howling wind, which made the shutters creak. The open book in his lap wouldn’t have impressed either of his tutors; it was Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

Vincent strove to focus on the meaning of Yule rather than the prospect of spending the holiday without his family. He closed his eyes and reflected on its prehistoric roots, when people of the British Isles genuinely feared that the sun wouldn’t return.

Yule was the shortest day of the year, when the darkness lingered late into the morning and returned in the afternoon. To this day, many Druids, such as the Montmorency family, remained awake all night, until the sun rose the next morning; it had become celebratory rather than fearful, and it was typically accompanied by wine and dancing around bonfires. Vincent’s family typically stayed up all night telling stories before a fireplace and exchanged presents after the sun rose.

Here in the tower, he was alone. He scanned the room and listened to the wind and the rattling shutters. Customarily he enjoyed solitude, but not on this day, a day meant to be celebrated with family. He closed his eyes and breathed in and out, slipping into a meditative state. He focused on his breath for about an hour.

Vincent heard the customary scratching at the ground floor door, before the servant Oakes entered with a floating tray of food. Strangely, Jenkins followed immediately behind, also waving his hands about and focusing his unblinking gaze upon two trays gliding in the air before him. Vincent recalled Jenkins’s comment about servants dismissed for letting one plate slip and break. Vincent grimaced.

The first tray displayed the customary breakfast food: eggs, mushrooms, a pot of a hot beverage, and toast and rolls with butter. Vincent raised his eyebrows at sight of a pot of marmalade; he’d requested this treat several times to no avail.

The second tray appeared to carry luncheon: cucumber sandwiches, oranges and pineapple, pudding, and tarts. A teapot and cup accompanied all this. To Vincent’s further confusion, the cook entered manually carrying another tray, which he set down before lifting the lid and reveling what appeared to be a veritable feast, considering the monotony of Vincent’s meals since his imprisonment began three months ago: bean and cheese casserole, potatoes and French beans, chocolate tarts, mince pie, and even a bottle of sherry with a wine glass.

Vincent wondered if the Organization was attempting to fatten him up and eat him for their Yule feast. “What is this?”

The cook twitched his hands impatiently. “As tomorrow is a very important holiday, we shall away tonight to spend it with our families. We have every intention of returning and resuming service for you the following day.”

Jenkins waved his hands, and a strip of purple brocade, accompanied by two matching purple candles, floated through the air and landed on the dining table. “We have taken the liberty of bringing your lordship an altar cloth and candles for your altar.”

Vincent visualized these objects on the altar with his goddess statue upstairs. He turned back to Oake. “You’ll spend the holiday with your families, while I spend the holiday alone here.”

Oake cleared his throat and spoke in a voice as chilly as the night air. “Most of the guards will remain tomorrow, milord. With that in mind, you won’t be entirely alone, though I expect you’re unlikely to see the guards.”

Jenkins held a napkin out to Vincent. “Unless your lordship sees some guards from the window or on the tower roof.”

Vincent took the napkin and refrained from sarcastically saying, How reassuring.

One tray settled down on the deep stone windowsill of a shuttered window. Jenkins waved at it. “Given the perishability of some of your food and beverages, we shall keep them chilled by placing them in front of the window.”

Vincent shuddered. “I’ve stood by that window. Yes, that’ll be sufficient.” He was struck, more so than ever before, by the coldness of Oake and the cook, compared to servants with whom he’d grown up. No doubt the Organization hired them because they didn’t sympathize with him. Jenkins didn’t strike him as cold, so that was hardly a consistent theory.

Vincent knew he must seem spoiled, and the servants might consider him a criminal deserving of punishment. Why should they be punished for his crime? No, they deserved to enjoy the holiday with their families. Whether he did was questionable.

As he thought this, Vincent felt a lump form in his throat. The thought of his crime, or alleged crime (a sentiment he increasingly considered wishful thinking or delusion) conjured the memory of the dark city street, Lady Hester and Sir Hubert standing on the walk, and Nathaniel glowing green. He sank into a chair. If the leaders of the Organization hadn’t died, they would have killed me.

The following morning, Vincent found no presents under a Solstice tree. The bedroom fire, he found as he pulled aside the bed curtains, had dwindled to tiny flickering flames, and he recalled that he would have no servants for the entire day. If the fire went out completely, he wasn’t sure how he’d start it anew with logs and tinder.

He slipped out of bed, padded across the ice-cold stone floor, and took hold of the poker and managed to encourage the flames to leap and spread. He knew he must do the same in the sitting room and the study, since it would be a cold December day with nobody else performing household chores. Watching the fire grow, Vincent rose from his crouch before the hearth and realized he’d taken servants for granted all his life.

He opened the large wardrobe and pulled out a pair of black trousers, which he slipped on. He turned to the goddess shrine but decided to finish dressing first. As tempting as he felt to be slovenly in such solitude, Vincent thought it disrespectful to stand in his nightshirt before the shrine, especially on Yule.

After donning a fresh linen shirt, a black wool waistcoat, and a black frockcoat, Vincent wrapped a maroon muffler around his throat rather than a cravat and approached the shrine at last.

A solitary ceremony was a far cry from the family celebrations in which he’d participated all his life. This thought inspired pressure on Vincent’s heart. He emitted a deep sigh and draped the purple altar cloth onto his altar. He placed the Mother Goddess Anu statue, the goblet, the bell, and the wand back on the altar and arranged a small cluster of holly directly before the statue. Lighting the purple candle, he bowed his head and chanted:

Goddess bright and sky dark,

Mother of the universe, hark!

I beseech you: bring back the day

And never let it entirely go away.

 

Vincent reminded himself that he should be grateful. He wouldn’t occupy the tower forever, and his family would be waiting for his return. While the lack of pleasant company on such a celebratory day brought him melancholy, he had the entire day off from his studies and wouldn’t see his abrasive tutor, Caldecott.

Vincent spent most of the day reading and indulged in a nap in the early afternoon, something he rarely did. When he awoke, sunset had already begun. Watching the sunset through an open window, Vincent resolved to meditate through the solstice night until the sun rose.

Bundled up in a quilt and the muffler, he sat in an armchair in front of his shrine. Meditating with his eyes nearly closed, he listened to the crackling of the fire and frequently ruminated before reminding himself to return to mindfulness of his breath. Memories of past Yules rose: happy family memories, including at the sacred grove behind his parents’ estate and similarly behind Goblin Hall, the manor house where Sir Bryant, Margot, and Roland lived.

When Vincent was ten years old, his family spent December as houseguests at Goblin Hall. On Yule, the children helped servants create a bonfire, which the servants lit at dusk. Vincent and his brother danced around the flames and whooped and hollered. Margot joined them; even Roland did after a clandestine gulp of holiday rum.

Vincent recalled Nathaniel leaping before the crackling fire. Now his lips trembled, and his throat constricted. He wondered how he could have joyful memories of Nathaniel. Would grief always feel like this? Would he eventually have thoughts of Nathaniel without tears? He couldn’t turn to his parents, or to Margot or Roland, and ask them these questions.

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