VASKAPU – a Free, Full-Length PDF-format Gothic Romance (with added dragons)
What’s This About?
My name is Nigel Edwards and I have written a book that can be downloaded, read and redistributed from these WordPress pages for free.
(But please read the legal stuff at the end of this page first.)
Why is it Free?
Every writer believes that what they write is of high quality and can’t fail to be of interest to anyone who reads it. Both may be true, but convincing agents and publishers is virtually impossible. Agents and publishers look only for swelling bank balances. To date I’ve been unable to get an agent or publisher to give me the time of day for Vaskapu.
All authors know how hard it is to find an agent or a publisher. Even if you are fortunate enough to have something published once it remains an uphill struggle to get anything else published.
The exceptions to the above are (a) if you are famous/notorious or (b) you publish your work yourself.
The problem with (a) is that most authors, just like me, are extremely unlikely to qualify.
The problem with (b) is that we are competing in an open marketplace against thousands of other writers and millions of other books and stories. Even if you can afford, and have the skill and persistence to implement promotional campaigns, you will still require a chunk of luck (or really deep pockets) to succeed.
So, this book is free because I am realistic about the chances of my ever being represented by a professional agent or being taken on by a publisher. I am never going to get rich from writing, which is a shame but that’s life. What I can do, however, is put my book on the world wide web and make it as universally available as I possibly can.
Grab a copy and read it. You may like it or you may not but at least you will be able to judge the work on its merits, without having to wait for someone else to decide if you should be allowed to read it.
About the Book
The characters portrayed in this book are entirely fictional and any semblance to any individual, alive or dead, is entirely coincidental. Et cetera….
Vaskapu is an atmospheric, fantasy romance set in a Gothic world with echoes of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Geographically, the story mostly takes place in a fictional north of England.
The tale encompasses two romances.
The first is driven by the need of Marquis Raphael, last of the Vaskapu family and resident of Benediction House (colloquially known as Shun House) to find someone with whom to rescue his dynasty. That need is met by the daughter of a family from Iberia. Contessa Adelina journeys by sailing ship to marry Count Raphael, a man she has never met. This wedding will merge the ancient bloodline of the Vaskapu with that of the Cantabrians.
The second is an affair unlooked for, between Joseph Harrow, the chief servant of House Vaskapu and Señorita Constanza, travelling companion and guardian of Contessa Adelina. Constanza has cared for her charge since she was born, and has served the family Cantabria in similar fashion to Harrow’s service for the family Vaskapu.
Harrow is the chief character to guide the reader through this story. He is a complicated, haunted man, a flawed and twisted person with a perversion that will revile many (chapter 7); yet, he has redeeming features – loyalty, hard work, honesty. Constanza is almost instantly attracted to him, to the annoyance of Mistress Hartley, the Vaskapu Cook who has long been enamoured of Harrow.
Chronologically, the key events in the tale begin with the arrival of Adelina and Constanza, followed by the arrival of hunters from the Continent brought to these shores by the Duke of Umberland who has his own reasons for wishing the Vaskapu dynasty to end. Adelina and Raphael marry but any thought of domestic bliss is no more than a dream. The hunters, led by András, attack Shun House. Harrow leads a party, including Adelina, in a desperate flight that takes them to Castle Umberland and beyond… but to learn the success or otherwise of that escape you will need to read the book.
The opening chapter
Just to give you a foretaste of what you can expect from the book.
I. HOPE AND FEAR
What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
Contessa Adelina Lupita Serpa Cantabria swayed in sympathy with the movements of the tall ship, her senses alive to every sound and smell. She stood beneath the threatening night, tightly gripping the rails close to her cabin, the lambent, flickering yellow of swinging oil lamps barely acknowledging her presence. These provided the only light in her world; all was black beyond their reach but Adelina was comfortable with the darkness.
Groan. The creak of timber, weathered and battered by the sea for a score of years, moving to the irregular rhythm of the ship as the vessel ploughed a passage through the rough water.
Snap. The whip of canvas in a bucking, salty squall, promissory vanguard to a storm.
Shout. A cry in the curious tongue of sailors, understood only by those who shared their maritime calling.
Spray found a way around Adelina’s hood to lash obliquely across her skin as she gazed forward, straining for a sight of land. There was no value in looking aft. Many days of sailing separated her from the southern territories of home. In fact, there was no point in looking anywhere beyond the bounds of the ship – safe anchorage was still a moonless, starless night away, yet she felt the compulsion of all travellers to seek ahead for the first sign of journey’s end.
“Come back inside, niña.” The words were spoken by a tall, aristocratic woman. Señorita Constanza Cantabria was Adelina’s guardian and travelling companion; but more than that, she was her madre de alquiler. She placed a hand on the shoulder of her charge but the girl shrugged it off.
“I like the sea. I like the dark and the raw cut of the wind. It’s in my blood.”
“But the wind will strengthen, Adelina. Already the ship pitches and rolls. Your blood will be no saviour if you should slip between the waves this night; and where then would the future lie? It is foolish for you to risk…”
Adelina whirled sharply, lamplight sparking hotly in her eyes. “¡No me eche sermones! I am not a child and you will not call me foolish. You forget yourself.”
Constanza inclined her head. “Your pardon, condesa.”
“You may have been permitted to use my father’s name but your blood is not mine! And I do not need reminding of purpose, dama de compañía. Hasn’t it been drummed into my every waking moment? Who should be more aware of destiny than I? You would do well to remember that.”
“This I do not forget.” There was pride in Constanza’s voice, pride and steel. “I have served the family all my life. Have I not been with you since birth? Have I not cared for and waited on you these eighteen years, watched you grow, guided you to this present? Have I not shared the dreams of your father that you would not be the last? I remember the gladness in my heart when we learned there was another, when fading hope for the future was reborn. And now, as we stand on the brink of fulfilment, do you think I should say nothing while you taunt fate, heedless of consequence? No, child. It is I who bears the burden of your destiny. I am the one entrusted with your safety. I am the one charged with bringing you to a distant shore for the sake of hope. And it is I who will bear the guilt if that hope is brought to ruin because a child ignores her duty to survive!”
Adelina stared back defiantly, a fiery retort on her tongue; but the words remained unsaid as the ship bucked violently, adding weight to the older woman’s message. Her balance thrown, the contessa felt her back pushed hard against the rails as her feet slipped on the deck. For one long moment her vision was filled with a mass of black, churning sea, a roar of water that urged her to relinquish her life and plunge into the abyss. Death was something she understood, something she knew very well – but this time it was her own demise that threatened. It wasn’t a sense of destiny that called her to resist; it was the threat of personal extinction. Instinctively she reached out a clutching hand in desperation before finding safety in Constanza’s arms.
“Now will you do as I say?”
This time Adelina obeyed.
“Even monsters will recognise how fragile is their existence when confronted by their own mortality,” Constanza murmured to herself as she followed future’s hope back inside.
The early February sky still simmered with the remnants of the night’s fury, clouds describing angry wild legends that masked the dawn. If the sun did manage to break through that day there would still be no warmth. A bitter wind blew inland from the sea, bringing with it the tang of brine and freshly chopped seaweed.
Joseph Harrow, senior retainer to Marquis Raphael Álmos Vaskapu, hurried across the cobbles to the mews where Arnold Cullip had a ride saddled and waiting.
“Morning, Mister Harrow. Reckon it’ll be a cold one today.”
Harrow regarded the ostler. He remembered him as a young boy, a snot-nosed lad who’d cleaned boots, fetched firewood, swept the flues, and did all the dirty or heavy jobs that the serving girls didn’t have the stomach or strength for. All tasks to which Harrow himself had once been assigned many years ago, before eventually stepping into his father’s old boots. Harrow was, therefore, born to his position but still he remembered the hard graft he’d endured before his father’s death. With no son of his own he wondered if, perhaps, it would be this young stable-hand who one day would ride out on a master’s errand.
“Isn’t it always?” Harrow replied, bestowing on Cullip his most sober expression.
The youth looked away but Harrow wasn’t surprised. There were few that could return his gaze. My eyes are witness to a lifetime of evil – who wouldn’t turn away?
“I’ll, er… I’ll just get…” Cullip turned hastily and dragged wide the stable door.
Harrow mounted the bay mare and pressed his heels to the horse’s belly. He looked neither left nor right as the horse crossed the courtyard and trotted down the cinder driveway towards the heavy, wrought iron gates leading to the road.
By the time Harrow reached them, old Charlie Straughan had already left the warmth of his cottage and was heaving at the heavy iron. Ancient though he was, his ears were still alert to the sound of an approaching horse.
The gatekeeper proffered an arthritic and unacknowledged salute. His joints ached, his neck was stiff, and the muffler and greatcoat he’d donned couldn’t keep the cold from his bones. The wind had veered last night, coming in hard from the east, and there had been a storm. Such things were portents but he didn’t allow himself to consider of what. Whatever was to happen was not his affair. After the rider had passed on through, and Charlie had shut the gates once more, he returned to his fire and considered nothing but if his log-pile was high enough to last out the remainder of the winter.
The fishing village of Hook was an easy journey by foot or hoof, but against the thrusting wind Harrow knew the trek would last longer than usual; yet he made no attempt to speed his passage. This trip was merely to confirm that a ship had arrived. If so, then a further outing would be called for, when the sun had set; if not, then the last of the Vaskapu, the master of Shun House, would resume his dreaming vigil, waiting on a day when hope for the future might be resurrected.
Harrow wrapped his cape tighter against the cold. The wind had lessened from the gale of the night but was still strong. Long before he reached the harbour he could feel his cheeks burning and by the time he arrived the tips of his fingers were numb despite thick, fur-lined gloves. He dismounted stiffly and made his way to the wharf.
The sea remained rough and heavy. Low clouds and high spray merged to obscure his view but there, safely anchored in the bay with her sails furled, was a tri-masted clipper, slewing side to side in the energetic swell. Harrow noted flickering bow and stern lights as he walked the short distance to the Black Sail, where the proprietor looked up as he entered.
This man’s face was tough, hardy, a face happy to deal with arguments and brawls, well used to keeping order in his domain; yet his expression betrayed him as wary and uncertain. Harrow met such distrust every time he came to the village, but he knew it wasn’t himself that was the ultimate cause – that lay with the place he came from. Or more precisely, the master who dwelt within.
No one else was in the room, just the telling remnants of those who had been: the reek of settled pipe-smoke, stale beer, sweat and piss; dark stains in old sawdust waiting for a broom to stir some freshness into the mix.
“When did the ship heave to, Mackay?” Harrow asked. There was no need for greeting or pleasantries. Nor were any wanted.
The innkeeper picked up a mug and threw away the dregs before spitting in the glass and wiping the inside with a grimy, discoloured rag.
“Early,” he answered with no attempt at civility, though he was careful enough to curb any tone that might be construed as insolent.
Harrow regarded the barkeep but his review was not returned. The man from Shun House wasn’t wanted here and that was fine: he had no desire to stay longer than needed. “Has anyone come ashore yet?”
Mackay just shook his head.
“You’ve kept rooms free for when they do?”
“Aye.” The barman put the glass down on an upturned barrel and picked up another. “A brace, as I was bid.”
No other questions remained to be asked. Maybe the rooms would be used, maybe they wouldn’t. They had been reserved in case they were needed but it didn’t matter either way. Harrow couldn’t imagine the ship’s passengers would be content to rest in this hovel, but possibly the captain or ship’s officers would welcome time ashore before they sailed again.
Why do I care about that? Harrow wondered. Men he might never speak with, perhaps not even see: why should their welfare concern him? Yet somehow it was important to offer something, some token of comfort, some reward beyond the purse they’d have received for the hire of the vessel. Were they aware of who their passengers really were? Did they understand the nature of their journey?
“I’ll return with a carriage this evening,” he told Mackay as he left. “When they come from the ship, advise them of that.”
The innkeeper said nothing. He merely spat into the next glass and paid further lip service to cleanliness with his rag.
In the kitchens of the great house, Mistress Honoria Hartley, cook and housekeeper, was fretting over her preparations. Guests were due and that called for production on a grand scale. No matter how many were expected, so far as she was concerned you planned for either one or many – there was nothing in-between. It wasn’t the number of visitors that was vexing her; it was the fact that they were ‘foreign’, people with strange habits and probably even stranger tastes. Mistress Hartley had spent the last evening and before dawn this morning thumbing through bundles of recipes by candlelight, sheaves of instructions she’d not looked at since – well, not since before she could remember, practically. Certainly not since she’d learned her trade hanging onto the skirts of her mother, and that was too long ago.
No, the point was that ‘foreigners’ were an unknown. Traditional foodstuffs, game and heavy meats with roasted vegetables she could conjure with until the cows came home. But now she was faced with mysterious words taunting her from yellowed pages: basmati, crouton, goulash – what could you do with such words? Spices? What was wrong with pickled onions, mustard, cress and beetroot? Parsley, borage, clary and rocket? Or southernwood? Why, generations had been raised on such flavours, and raised well.
Get on with it, woman. She packed away the recipes with determination. Whatever these foreigners might be used to in their own heathen lands they’d make do with decent, honest, home-grown sustenance while they ate from her kitchen or… well, it wouldn’t be down to her if their bellies remained empty. Mind settled at last, Mistress Hartley straightened her back. She cast an experienced eye over the pots and pans hanging from strong nails hammered into stout beams, then looked towards the larder.
Now then, what’s to ready for the dinner tonight…?
At five o’clock Harrow accompanied Dora, the upstairs maid, to inspect the rooms prepared for the visitors. Everything was tidy and free of dust; mirrors polished and correctly aligned, beds properly made, towels and soap flakes in the bathrooms. He dismissed the girl. The sight of her scampering quickly back downstairs brought an image to mind, a picture of another girl, an orphaned waif brought into the house ten years since.
He remembered the way she had moved as she went about her duties. He remembered her on the night she’d served a meal to the young Raphael in his secret room below the foundations of the house – and he remembered the following morning, when he had disposed of her poor, gnawed remains. That vision was a stabbing thorn that was always with him, a grim vision that garnished his already dark dreams in the dead of night.
And that black memory was just one. How many others had seen him waken to a bed sodden with guilt? Some had been brought to service the Vaskapu dream, the hope for a future yet unrealised – but others had come to service his own secret desires. He shuddered, unable to deny them. Death was far from a stranger to his own hands.
And they had never left, those… children. None of them. They were still here, their bodies gone but their spirits chained, enthralled, bound contributors to the brooding and haunting atmosphere of this grim Great House.
Harrow’s gaze roamed the cracked-plaster walls, the stained floorboards, the high ceilings – but those were not in the focus of his eye. Even now he could see spectres floating, hopeless, aimless, pitiful; and not just those whose lives Harrow had personally snuffed out. The Vaskapu had lived here for many generations. How many souls had been brought – sometimes by Harrow’s own hand – within their reach and then lost to the outside world? The fisher-folk of Hook whispered their fears to each other and cursed the creatures that dwelt above the cliff, the house that cast long shadows over the salt-crusted stone cottages cowering by the shores of the bay; cottages where old and young whimpered in corners, fearful of some dread visitation that would steal them away to feed animal desires. Harrow had played his part. Like his father before him, he had prostituted himself to Shun House, exchanging the birthright of his humanity for venal increments to his own, corrupt fortune.
A long-ago memory pushed to the front of Harrow’s thoughts, a day when Marquis Gergõ Vaskapu, the old master, had spoken to him just days after the passing of Harrow’s own father. They spoke beneath the House in a cavern where dragons slept…
“Thy time for true service is upon thee,” the old master had said, his voice like broken eggshells. “My strength fades, a cold and silent rest beckons. Soon I shall depart – but I leave behind a seed and if that seed is vital, a child shall be born. It must be cared for, nurtured, protected. The compact that existed between thy father and House Vaskapu must continue. Art thou prepared?”
The younger Harrow had understood. His father had served and now the time had come for his son, a man approaching his twenty-fifth year, to stand in his place. Yes, he was prepared. This had always been his destiny. Born into service, allegiance to the family was intrinsic and so it would continue. But this was more than an inheritance of obligation – it was a votive charge, a contract where each party understood the needs of the other and fulfilled them without question or judgement.
Like his father before him, Joseph Harrow was a warped creation, a man with uncommon appetites. In recompense for loyal and steadfast service, the master of Benediction House provided payment, part of which was an especial emolument to reflect those especial desires. Rewards are not always pecuniary, treasure need not always be gold. Oh yes: Harrow was a sinner in his own right.
The child was born on the day of the old master’s death. The mother, an outcast from the world outside, was spent in the process and Lady Ilka, sister of Gergõ, came to Benediction House to take charge of the infant. The child grew, the world turned, and everything remained the same.
As the years advanced, the rapacious desires of Harrow’s youth retreated. Never lost entirely but at least watered down, so much less intense. In their place, however, came the weight of culpable guilt bearing down on his shoulders, a burden that grew heavier with every year that passed.
Harrow believed his own soul lost, his spirit in thrall to his crimes. His dead father was still here, he was certain, denied the release of salvation, a phantom like the others. In time the two would be reunited and drift through a bleak eternity together and in moments of dread he would feel the bully-blows of spectral whispers about his personal destiny, and he would shudder.
Now, on this day, another was approaching, fetched by ship from a distant land. This time things could be different. Must be different because this time there was a blood relationship. Dilute, perhaps, separated by both centuries and the sea, but nonetheless reanimating that evanescent hope for the future. Harrow recalled how intensely the young marquis had read the first letter to arrive those months ago, a missive of hope from a far shore.
“Perhaps,” he had overheard the nobleman murmur in his deep cavern, “I am not alone.”
With a shake of his head, Harrow brushed aside the memories and phantasms that were trying to smother him with their horrid, fleshless forms, and followed the maid downstairs. The sun had remained hidden all day, and now there was only night. It was time to fetch the guests.
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What Can You Do?
Without charge, you can download the book in PDF form. You can read the story, take copies of it and share the original PDF with your friends.
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You cannot sell the book, either wholly or in part. You cannot present the story, either wholly or in part, as your own work. You cannot derive any sort of income based on the book. You cannot use the story as the basis for your own work. You cannot convert the book into a stage play, a film, a radio play, a television programme or anything else without permission from the author.
This book was originally self-published a few years ago on Kindle under the title “Shun House”. It was priced at ridiculous money because that’s all the system would allow me to do, and that’s the reason nobody even thought about buying the book. Oh well…
I’ve tweaked parts of the story in the meantime. I think it’s better than ever. But you will need to e the judge of that…