The Coven, Part XXXXV

I went to sleep, and when I opened my eyes again, I was standing on a hill.

There were drifts of snow piled all around me, and when I looked down the hill toward the rolling valley below, everything was blanketed in white. Snow was still falling, but when I looked up, the sky was a clear, endless blue.

I immediately recognized the hills and the valley underneath the snow. I turned around slowly, and behind me I saw bluebell hill cottage, crowned with snow and decked with glittering icicles all around the low eaves.

The cottage door creaked open, and Hope stepped through. He smiled and waved, and then walked toward me as though nothing had ever been wrong.

I couldn’t move- I daren’t even breathe, lest I break the spell. When I’d left Hope behind in the dungeon, he’d been bruised, beaten, and shorn. Now, however, his unblemished skin glowed with health and his eyes glowed with happiness. Snowflakes were tangled up in his long, wavy hair.

“Grace,” he said. “Why do you weep? We are home now- happy and safe together. Nothing can ever separate us again.”

“Is this real?” I asked.

“Come with me, Grace,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me show you what it means to have a soul. Do you trust me?”

“I do,” I said without hesitation, and I reached out.

In a flash, I was being held in Hope’s arms as we soared effortlessly together through the snow-filled air. Far below, the river was a frosted ribbon that looped through the valley, and the snow-covered hills were empty of flowers and sheep. Everything seemed strangely silent. Even though we were flying, I could hear no wind whistling in my ears. I couldn’t feel the bite of winter in the air, or even the snowflakes that should have blown into my eyes.

I was warm, comfortable, and safe in Hope’s arms.

After a few moments, the sound of church bells echoed over the hills, growing louder by the moment. The bells played a melodic and whimsical tune- it should have been soothing, but instead the sound shook me to my core.

Something wasn’t right. When I looked down, I could see the snow begin to melt, and as the chimes grew louder, the hills themselves seemed to melt away. I felt Hope release me, and when I looked up again I saw that Hope was drifting away from me into the endless blue sky.

I tried to reach out to him, but my arm would not reach. I was falling further and further toward the valley until I could not see him any more.

Then I opened my eyes and the sky, the hills, and the snow were gone.

I was in a small stone cell at the Abbey del Sol, where I’d been sent after Hope was arrested for witchcraft. The cathedral bells from my dream continued; they were the bells of the Cathedral del Sol, calling the pilgrims and the Sisters to prayer.

I looked up at the small portal that was carved into the stone wall over my bed. Outside, the sky was soft pink and purple, and the sun hovered over the strip of blue sea in the west- so the bells I’d heard must be the evening bells. I had slept all day after taking my ill-advised journey with Brother Lux.

I was fully awake, but I could not stir myself. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the beautiful dream I’d had- tried to imagine Hope and myself flying through the air- but I could not. Loss settled like a stone on my chest, and I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed, let alone soar through the sky.

“I want to see if Lady Grace will come, too,” a high voice called outside my door.

“She is sleeping,” another, deeper voice replied.

The door to my cell creaked open, and Celeste crept up to my bed.

“Lady Grace! Lady Grace!” Celeste sang in time to the chiming bells. “Time to wake up! Time to wake up!”

As though Celeste’s simple, childlike song had been a powerful spell, the heavy stone on my chest lightened and I had the strength to push myself up. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“Good morning, Celeste.”

Celeste was standing close to me, wearing a small, white pilgrim’s robe. Her wavy, brown hair was loose around her shoulders, making her look like a minature version of Hope. A veiled sister, whom I guessed to be Sister Jubilee, stood in the doorway behind her.

“It’s not morning,” Celeste protested.

“Celeste, don’t bother Lady Frey,” Sister Jubilee sighed.

“But she’s been asleep all day,” Celeste said, and turned back to me. “Lady Grace, you’re supposed to be the sensible one.”

“You’re quite right,” I said, getting out of bed. “Does this mean that you’re ready to recite your lessons?”

“Not now- it’s time for prayer, and you aren’t even dressed yet.” Celeste took my hand and dragged me to the end of the bed, where a white robe lay folded on top of my trunk.

“Look- Abbess Joy gave you one, too. Hurry and dress, so you can hear Abbess Joy sing. Just wait- she’s wonderful.”

“I will hurry, but I have already heard Abbess Joy sing.”

Celeste frowned. “You have? When?”

I knelt by Celeste and whispered. “She’s sung to me since I was little. You see, Abbess Joy is my guardian angel.”

 

#

 

Celeste’s efforts turned out to be for naught; I had awakened and dressed too late to go to evening prayer. I took Celeste to the refectory where we dined together, and afterward I took her to her room, where she told me everything she had learned under Miss Marin. As she recited her times tables her voice drew low and heavy, her eyelids fluttered, and she finally sighed;

“Nine times six is 54, nine times seven is …63, nine times… nine…”

The ever-present Sister Jubilee pulled up Celeste’s blanket, and I extinguished the light.

After we shut the door, Sister Jubilee gestured for me to follow, and led then me to the center of the abbey’s starburst, where the calefactory lay.

“I must say,” Sister Jubilee said, “you have a peculiar way of putting a child to bed.”

“Do I? I used to recite the times tables to fall asleep when I was her age.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, of course,” Sister Jubilee continued. “I generally mean ‘peculiar’ to be a compliment.”

“I was not offended,” I said. “I don’t consider the term to be either a condemnation or a compliment. The best among us are outliers, as are the worst.”

“True, but there’s always some advantage to be had in defying expectations.”

We had come to the calefactory entrance, where Sister Jubilee paused to open the door and gestured for me to go inside.

The calefactory was a circular room that gave the impression of snugness despite its great size. Like the refectory, there was a huge stone fireplace at each side of the room, but in the calefactory, comfortable, threadbare chairs were crowded around each fireplace. A circular stone table stacked with odds and ends stood in the middle of the room. On the back wall, there was a set of bookshelves that reached so high a rolling ladder was attached to reach the upper shelves.

“The other sisters make confessions to Abbess Joy after prayer. The will be finished, soon.”

“Am I keeping you from confession?” I asked. “If so, there’s no need to-”

Sister Jubilee interrupted me with a wave of her hand. “I never confess. I’ve already achieved perfection, you see, so there’s no point.”

I could not think of a rejoinder to such a remark, so I held my tongue. Sister Jubilee seemed content with no reply. She busied herself by stoking the fire and placing the kettle on the hob.

“There’s still water- good. I don’t want to go to the pump, and you don’t know where it is. Fetch me some cups and the blue teapot from the table- oh- and the red tin, too.”

I fetched the things from the table, and then Sister Jubilee measured some tea from the tin into the teapot.

“You aren’t wearing a veil,” Sister Jubilee remarked as she worked. “I saw Abbess Joy leave one for you.”

“I am not a sister; I didn’t think it would be appropriate.”

“Don’t you worry that a pilgrim or a sister will recognize you?”

“I didn’t come to del Sol to hide from the world,” I said. “I came because Father Pius sent me into exile.”

Sister Jubilee shrugged. “Lord Frey’s arrest has been published- every priest, plebeian, and prince will know his sin and your connection. Abbess Joy can protect you from harm, but not from slander and hate.”

“I can withstand both,” I said, “but if my presence at the cathedral becomes disruptive, I will avoid it.”

Sister Jubilee laughed. “That’s a fine excuse to avoid church. I suspect that you are like me- already perfect.”

A sharp whistle cut through our conversation as the kettle boiled, and at the same time the Calefactory doors opened. Veiled sisters filed inside, one by one throwing back their veils and revealing the faces of Sister Blessing, Sister Love, Purity and Innocence, and four more sisters whom I did not recognize. Mercy followed a few moments later, already bare-faced.

“Have you been to confession, too?” Sister Jubilee asked Mercy, handing her a cup.

Mercy stared down at her teacup for a moment, as though checking it for poison, and then she took a tentative sip.

“If you must know,” Mercy said, “I’ve been scouting the perimeter of the abbey. There’s a clear view of the harbor from the cliffs, and I can see the road that leads into the lowlands, but the road into the hill country is well-hidden. I suggest that Abbess Joy find an opportune place to launch her fireballs from, should the need arise.”

I nearly choked on my own tea. “Fireballs?”

Mercy arched one elegant eyebrow. “You can’t have forgotten the fireballs that Abbess Joy cast at the bandits, last night. She scared me almost to death- I had nightmares about them.”

I thought back to the previous evening, when we had fled a group of bandits on our way to del Sol. Abbess Joy had met us on the road, raised her staff, and everyone had started as though terrified of something. The enemy horses had turned and fled. This, I thought, must have been when Mercy saw the fireballs.

Abbess Joy was a practitioner of holy magic, and my father had used her to test my magical resistance as a child. I was a half-blooded ancient, which meant I was both soulless and immune to the effects of magic. If Abbess Joy’s fireballs had been an illusion, it would stand to reason that I wouldn’t see them.

“Of course I remember,” I said quickly, “but I’m sure that Abbess Joy is familiar with all of the sanctuary’s weaknesses, and can defend them appropriately.”

“She can,” Sister Jubilee confirmed.

The doors opened again, and Abbess Joy entered, followed by Miss Taris.

Miss Taris was wearing the same white robes as the other sisters, but she was barefaced. Her long blonde hair was unbound, and she looked almost as pale and unwell as she had when she had gained her powers. She followed Abbess Joy over to our little cluster of chairs and sank down into a seat, closing her eyes as though in relief.

“Please, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said gently. “Have some tea.”

Miss Taris kept her eyes shut, and for a few moments I thought she must have fallen asleep, but then she heaved another deep sigh.

“It’s quiet here,” she said. “My headache is going away. I think I can manage some tea.”

“I’m sorry to see you are unwell, Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said, handing Miss Taris a cup. “Your journey must have been very trying.”

“I hope you didn’t catch a cold,” Mercy said. “I’m feeling perfectly well. How are you, Lady Frey?”

Miss Taris opened her eyes to glare at Mercy, who smiled back.

“Thank you for the tea, Sister Jubilee,” I said, ignoring Mercy’s remark. “I have a letter to write, so I will retire. Miss Mercy, is there anything you would like to include?”

“Just say-” Mercy looked around, and then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Tell him that I miss him, and that I swear I’ll protect you and Celeste.”

I nodded, stood, and turned to go.

 

#

 

I spent well over an hour composing my letter to Hope. I didn’t know if this letter would be my last opportunity to send him a message, or even if he would receive it at all. I knew that I must be careful not to write anything incriminating, for no doubt the inquisition would read all of his correspondence. My biggest problem, however, was to convey how much I loved and missed him without causing him any pain on my account. I assured him that Celeste and I were safe, but I could not honestly assure him that we were happy.

After wasting too many sheets of paper, I finally settled upon a letter worthy to send. I folded it carefully, but did not bother to seal it. I tucked the letter into my sleeve and went to find Brother Lux.

I hoped I wouldn’t need to go far to find him, but I put up the cowl on my robe in case I had to venture as far as the pilgrim’s quarters. It was a measure that proved unnecessary, as Brother Lux was waiting for me under the cloisters, leaning against one of the white columns.

“I need to return to Rowan Heights tonight,” he said, “but I have a promise to fulfil. I already have Celeste’s letters- all I lack is yours.”

I reached into my sleeve and handed him the letter.

“Lady Frey, I am in your debt. I will do what I can to alleviate your pain-”

“Please don’t,” I said. “Don’t make such promises when it’s in your power to free him. He’s your own brother, and he is no more guilty than you.”

“Lady, it’s not in my power to free him, now. Everything is already in motion, and all I can do is ease his way. I will allow you to correspond with him, but be mindful that the inquisition will read all of his letters. Also…”

Brother Lux paused and gazed over my shoulder, as though distracted.

“What is it?”

“I thought I felt- no, it’s nothing. I wanted to warn you that Abbess Joy is in no position to help you. She can keep you safe as long as you remain at St. Blanc, but she has no authority in the church. Even the Gods will not answer her prayers. She must remain here in penance for her sins. What’s more, if you tell her anything incrementing, she will be obligated to inform the church elders.”

“She wouldn’t-”

“She would, my Lady. I must go now, but I will send a courier with a reply to your note. Until we meet again.”

Brother Lux bowed slightly, and then turned to go.

When he was gone, I heard Sister Jubilee behind me. “He’s only half-lying about Abbess Joy. She can keep your secrets safe, just as she can keep you safe, but she cannot do much more.”

I spun to regard Sister Jubilee, who was striding toward me from the other side of the cloisters.

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear anything incriminating, but I already know a great deal about your situation. Don’t worry- your secrets are safe with me. In secrets, there is trust.”

Sister Jubilee laughed at my shocked expression- a sound that seemed too warm and alive for a woman in a shroudlike veil. Then, before I could protest, she took my hand and led me away from the cloisters.

“You don’t trust me at all, do you? Come- I’ll give you one of my secrets.”

The Coven, Part XXXXIV

Part XXXXV

 

I reached out and touched the mirror.

In response to my touch, the colored lights shifted and coalesced into an array of different shapes and sigils against a light blue background. I tried touching the mirror again, and this time my finger brushed against one of the sigils- an elaborately scrolled letter R. The image on the mirror changed again, this time showing an unfamiliar room.

A white, overstuffed chair stood at the center of the room facing the mirror, and behind it was a beige sofa and a white wall covered in simple but colorful artwork. The art was drawn with bold lines and bold colors, depicting a girl in a floral dress, a bear holding an apple, and a ship with its white sail spread wide against a blue sky.

I looked behind me, and saw that the white room remained unaltered.

“I’m coming- hold on.” A young woman’s voice rang out from the mirror. “I’ll be right there.”

A few moments later, a woman dressed in nothing but a pair of loose breeches and a tight blue chemise ran into view, and threw herself into the overstuffed chair. She had been carrying a cup, which she stowed somewhere below the mirror’s frame, and then she brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and blinked out at me with an expression of surprise that I thought must mirror my own.

She was a beautiful girl, with neat features, wide brown eyes, and hair of an unnaturally bright red hue, which fell in feathery layers to her shoulders. Her skin was so clear that it seemed to almost glow and her lips were such a deep red I thought they must have been painted with rouge.

The girl shook her hair out of her face, and seemed to regain her composure. “Um- hi. Who are you?”

My mouth went dry as I tried to think of how to respond. Was this girl friendly, or hostile? Could she help, or would she hurt me? I considered fleeing the room, but my legs would not move.

“My name is Raven,” she said in a gentler voice. “It’s ok- I won’t hurt you. I’m so far away that I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted. You’re only looking at a picture-”

“How far? Are you on another world? Are you on the red moon?” The words tumbled from my lips before I could think better of it.

“How do you know about that? Who are you?”

I swallowed hard, cursing myself for my foolishness. I felt as though I were trapped by both fear and ignorance, and I could not think of a useful or convincing lie.

“My name is Grace Ainsworth Frey; I am the wife of Lord Hope Uriel Frey,” I said, curtseying deeply.

“There’s no need to bow or anything,” the girl protested. She ducked her head as though in embarrassment and picked up her cup again.

“So, where is Hope?” she continued. “Sorry- I mean Lord Frey. I sometimes forget how formal you are down there.”

“He’s-” I hesitated. Hope was already in enough trouble with the inquisition- if this girl was a demon, could she make things worse for him? Would she curse him for his betrayal, as well?

“It’s ok,” Raven’s voice took on a more soothing cadence, as though she were speaking to a frightened child. “Just breathe. I won’t hurt you- I swear. Lord Frey is my friend.”

“If you are his friend, would you be willing to help him? If you can, I will take any oath, make any promise, do anything to appease your anger.”

“I’m not angry- why would I be? Tell me what happened to Lord Frey.”

“He’s been arrested,” I said. “He’s being held on charges of witchcraft.”

Raven put her cup down again with a loud clatter. “Holy crap. How did this happen? Shouldn’t Pius and Lux be in charge of the inquisition, now? I’ve been trying to contact Pius for days, but-”

“Father Pius is the one behind it. He said that Lord Frey violated coven law when I-”

“You didn’t reveal our secret, did you?”

“I didn’t. I made a promise never to tell. But I kept my discovery a secret from Pius because I was afraid of him.”

“I don’t blame you for that,” Raven said. She stood up and began to pace back and forth  across the room.

Crap- I can’t do anything from here, and there aren’t many of us on Terra that I can contact. What is that idiot doing?”

“Are you the demon with whom Lord Frey formed his contract?”

Raven stopped pacing and looked out of the mirror once more.

“How do you know so much? Even Lord Frey doesn’t know where I am.”

“I’m an astronomer; I was able to deduce your location.”

Raven smirked. “You know, Pius was worried about you, and now I understand why. The damage is already done, though.

“Listen, Lady Frey- you need to be careful of Pius. He’s more powerful than you know, and he’s cut himself off from his friends, which means he’s betrayed us, and we can’t predict what he will do next.”

“He’s already demonstrated his power to me,” I said, “but as long as he has my husband-”

“You don’t get it; he’s not an ordinary witch. He’s a demon, like me, only much, much stronger. If what you say is true, and he had Lord Frey arrested-”

“Not just Lord Frey- Father Pius had everyone in the coven arrested except for Brother Lux and Mrs. Auber.”

Raven put a hand to her forehead. “Damn. He wouldn’t have cut himself off from everyone unless he didn’t think he needed us anymore.”

“But why would he do such a thing?”

“I wish I knew. Lady Frey, the political situation on Terra is nothing compared to the chaos on the Red Moon. On Terra, you are living with the threat of war, but here war has been waging for centuries between the Angels and Demons. In fact, most of the problems on Terra can be traced to our war. We use the humans as our pawns, I’m sorry to say. I don’t think that Pius wants to join the Angels, because he’s never shown any sympathy to their cause, but I know he wants power. He might even try to take your world from the Gods.””

“Can he do it?”

“Who knows? He’s certainly strong enough to cause chaos. I think that you should lay low. Pius already had his eye on you, so whatever you do, don’t piss him off.”

“If Pius is as dangerous as you say, then I must try to fight him- not only to save my husband and his friends, but to stop him from seizing even more power. This is partially my fault. I must take responsibility.”

“Stop it,” Raven said. “I’ve been helping him from the beginning, so I’m the one who should take responsibility. I wanted to weaken the Gods’ power and loosen their grip on Terra, and I assumed that Pius had the same goals. You seem very brave, Lady Frey, but you need to let me and the other demons handle Pius. I swear that I’ll do what I can to stop him and save your husband.”

I did not trust her words, but all I could say was, “thank you.”

The combination of fatigue and fear had produced a strange state of mind. As I spoke to the girl through the magic mirror, a feat as strange as it was impossible, I felt as though I had drifted into a dream.

Wake up, Grace, I urged myself. Remember why you are here.

“I cannot destroy the mirror,” I said. “If the inquisitors find it, they may use it as evidence against my husband.”

Raven nodded. “I’ll deactivate it from this side. Have the inquisitors found anything else?”

“I don’t think so. Lord Frey’s library was destroyed.”

Raven sighed. “That’s something, at least. Thank you for telling me what happened, Lady Frey. I’ll contact you again if I can find a way.”

“But if you destroy the mirror…”

“There are other points of contact with Terra. But-” Raven paused and gave a small, sad smile. “If I can’t contact you again, tell Lord Frey that I’m sorry, and that it’s been an honor to work with him.”

I nodded. “Goodbye.”

And then the image in the mirror vanished, but I could not see my reflection. The mirror was now a lifeless piece of glass, as black as slate.

 

 

 

#

 

 

Had it all been a dream?

I walked back through the tunnel with only candlelight to guide me. The magic baubles

still hung overhead, but now they were useless glass balls that only reflected the weak light of my candle as I passed.

Speaking to a demon who dwelt on the red moon, learning that Father Pius was a demon, and using magic devices crafted by the demons themselves- how many more strange things would I encounter before I no longer trusted my own senses? Hope’s witchcraft had been difficult to accept at first, but Hope and his friends had eventually confirmed what I saw. Reality was something I could share with others. Now I was alone, and I was certain I had gone mad.

The more I tried to unravel the mysteries around me, the stranger and more mysterious the world appeared.

I paused to compose myself before ascending the ladder to the cottage. I knew that I must not let Brother Lux see that anything strange had occurred, but my resolve to hand him the Frey family writ was wavering.

Before Brother Lux had asked me to help him retrieve the writ, I had predicted that it  would be able to save Hope’s life. Brother Lux and Father Pius were many steps ahead of me in the game, though, and I realized that the writ may have implications I hadn’t anticipated. However, Brother Lux already knew everything about the writ, so I was giving him no new information by handing it to him.

A new thought occurred to me; Raven had warned me not to underestimate Father Pius’s powers. Only the power of a God could break the High Priest’s seal, as far as I knew, but a demon’s power was something beyond my knowledge. If Father Pius could break the seal, he might destroy whatever protection the writ gave Hope.

But if he breaks the seal, it will save Celeste’s soul. Hope would gladly give his life for that.

I took a deep breath and ascended the ladder.

Brother Lux was sitting in a wicker chair by the window. The heavy curtains were pulled back, but Brother Lux was sitting in a shadow beside the patch of soft, pink morning light that filtered inside.

When he saw me, he stood. “Did you get the writ?”

“Yes.” I held it out to him.

Brother Lux stepped into the patch of light and snatched the paper from me. He examined it for so long that I could see the light grow brighter around him as the sun rose. He even tried to tear the corner of the page, as though trying to detect a forgery.

“Thank you, Lady Frey,” he finally said. He clutched the document to his chest and raised his eyes toward the ceiling. “I hope that you will soon know how much good you’ve done. Come- the sun is rising, and we must leave before we are spotted. Take the candle with you; I don’t want to leave any evidence we’ve been here.

Brother Lux carefully closed and locked the cellar door, rolled back the rug, and we departed.

 

 

#

 

 

Abbess Joy met us on the road as we approached del Sol. She took my hand and helped me down from the chaise so we could walk to the abbey together.

“You’re weary and half-frozen,” she said, rubbing my hands. “Please come rest, and promise me you won’t have any adventures for a long while.

“I promise,” I said, too weary to protest.

We walked past the cathedral just as the sisters exited from their morning prayers. Three veiled sisters accompanied by Mercy, Miss Taris, and Celeste, stepped onto our path.

“Aunt Grace! You came back,” Celeste cried.

“A promise is a promise,” I said.

“What in the world are you wearing, Lady Frey?” the second sister said, throwing back her veil.

“Lady Dupuy! You made it here safely.”

“I told you to call me Innocence,” she chided. “And yes, I’m safe. I’m glad that you’re here. When I heard what had happened-”

“Don’t speak of it,” the third veiled sister said in Sister Purity’s high, sweet voice.

“Well, I’m sorry for what happened,” Innocence said, and then smiled more cheerfully. “I found Purity, and here is Miss Taris, even. It looks like all of the ladies are safe, now.”

“Not all,” I said, remembering Lady Willoughby and Chastity. “I wish they were. I wish everyone were safe.”

“Please, Lady Frey,” Abbess Joy said gently. “Excuse us, but Lady Frey really must rest.”

“Of course.” Innocence put her veil back down. “I have to wear this veil if I’m to stay hidden, but I wanted to let you see I am well.”

The other sisters turned to go, but the first, whom I guessed was sister Jubilee, stepped forward.

“Thank you, Lady Frey. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Leave her alone- she needs to sleep,” Mercy said. She stepped forward and took her quarterstaff from my hands. “Go rest, Lady Frey, and welcome back.”

Abbess Joy smiled, took my hand, and led me away from my friends.

 

Abbess Joy and I walked through the gently rolling dunes in silence. I stumbled once or twice from exhaustion, but each time Abbess Joy helped me back to my feet, and waited for me to regain my balance before we continued.

She led me up to the abbey, and we took a shortcut between two buildings and through the stately, white cloisters to the dormitory. Even so, the walk seemed miles further than it had the previous night. As I walked down the dormitory hallway, toward the cell where I’d stowed my things the night before, time almost seemed to slow.

When we finally arrived, I opened the door and approached the cot. I could not lie down, however. Something seemed, though. The bed was too small, and the room too empty. I did not have a hand to hold while I slept.

“Lady Frey? Are you alright?”

“He cannot-” I started to speak, but my voice broke, and I had to begin again. “He cannot sleep without me.”

And finally, too weary to stand any longer, I collapsed to my knees by the bed. Abbess Joy reached out to hold me as tears escaped from my eyes.

“Let yourself cry,” she soothed. “You’ve held your feelings inside for too long.”

A sob broke through, and I felt as though a dam burst in my heart. I wept and wept; I thought I would weep forever. My face grew slick with tears, and my throat was sore from sobbing, but still the weeping continued. Abbess Joy continued to hold me.

After a few minutes, my sobs subsided a little so that I could breathe, but then I saw Hope’s bruised and beaten face in my mind’s eye, and the sobs continued again.

Abbess Joy rocked me in her arms a little as though I were a child, and started to sing a gentle, hauntingly familiar tune.

 

Steady burn the evening stars,

Brilliant as the noonday sun,

Be we near or be we far,

We are one. We are one.

 

When I recognized the song, I was overcome by a fresh wave of tears. It was a song she had sung me as a child- the litany of peace. Abbess Joy’s holy magic failed to calm me, but within the tears, the song, and Abbess Joy’s tenderness, I felt something begin to knit and heal inside of me.

 

Steady fly the birds above,

Here, below, our worries cease,

Listen to my words of love:

Give us peace. Give us peace.

The Coven, Part XXXXIII

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Abbess Joy asked me for the third time.

I had first gone to the dormitory to see Celeste to bed. After the stories, songs, hugs, and promises I would return the next day, Celeste fell asleep. Then I’d gone to my own cell, where my trunk had already been stowed, to prepare for my journey.

Mercy, Abbess Joy, and even Sister Jubilee had followed me, and after I’d refused to tell them where Brother Lux and I were going, they’d crowded into my already cramped cell to try to dissuade me.

“I’m not sure about this, but I must act,” I said to Abbess Joy. I knelt beside the trunk, opened it, and started sifting through clothes.

“I have a better question,” Mercy said. “Have you gone mad?”

“Yes- I possibly have.” I removed one of Hope’s shirts and a woolen waistcoat.

“Why would you go with the man who imprisoned your husband on some mysterious adventure?”

“It may be a fool’s errand, but it may be my husband’s only salvation,” I said. “Given his current chances, this is a move I must make.”

“I can’t protect you if you leave del Sol,” Abbess Joy said quietly. “My magic is bound to this place. If I go into the world without the Gods’ blessings, I am powerless.”

I paused, clutching a pair of breeches. “Thank you, Abbess, but please don’t worry about me. Brother Lux and I are taking a back-road from the cathedral, in the opposite direction from where we met the bandits. As for Brother Lux- if he’d wanted to harm me personally, he’s already had ample opportunity to do so. We will return as soon as we can.”

“I think you should go, Lady Frey.”

Abbess Joy, Mercy and I turned to Sister Jubilee in surprise. I’d begun to see Sister Jubilee as an extension of Abbess Joy, and until now Sister Jubilee had followed her mistress in silence. But when Sister Jubilee spoke, it was in a warm, confident voice almost as surprising as the words themselves.

“You promised Celeste that you would fight to free Lord Frey. I’m glad those weren’t just pretty words.”

“I fail to see how this is any of your concern,” Mercy spat. Then she turned back to me. “Lady Frey, we should discuss this alone.”

“I don’t have time, Mercy. We can talk when I return.”

“There’s no point in talking after you return. At least let me go with you. I promised Lord Frey that I would protect you.”

“Stay here to fulfill your promise. Protect Celeste for him.”

Mercy groaned and left the room as I continued to dress. In a moment, she returned with her quarterstaff, which she thrust into my hands.

“At least take a weapon.”

“I don’t know how to use it,” I protested.

Mercy adjusted my hands, demonstrating the proper grip. “It’s simple-  strike your enemy with it. Aim for the stomach, head, or knees.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“No- don’t thank me. I’d rather you didn’t go on any foolish adventures without at least a month’s worth of training- or a year at the rate you’ve been progressing.”

Abbess Joy stepped forward. “Celeste is safe here- I promise. Please reconsider taking Mercy with you.”

I sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but after everything that’s happened, it’s difficult to leave her again.”

Abbess Joy placed her hands over mine. “May the Gods bless you, Lady Frey. Please return unharmed.”

“I will,” I promised.

 

 

#

 

 

I found Brother Lux outside, readying a small, two-person chaise.

“Lady Frey, I hope you are ready to-” he turned and stopped speaking as soon as he saw me.

I was wearing Hope’s clothes- shirt, waistcoat, and breeches, with a wool greatcoat over them. The shirtsleeves had to be rolled back, and the breeches cuffed, but otherwise they fit well enough. I’d tied my hair back with a black ribbon in the dragoon style, completing the effect.

“I trust we won’t meet the bandits again, but they seemed most interested in kidnapping ladies. Hopefully, in the darkness, this will disguise me well enough.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then I will be able to fight more easily than I would in crinolines and stays.”

We climbed into the chaise, and Brother Lux took the reins.

“I thought a small horsecart would attract less attention than a coach-and-four,” Brother Lux explained. “Plus, I dare not bring the coachman along. It will be very cold, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” I said. “My husband’s coat is very warm.”

We set forth down the pink, moonlit road together. We rode in silence for a time, and then I spoke.

“I’m sorry to ask questions of such a personal nature,” I ventured, “but I am curious about the nature of your relationship with Father Pius.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. How long have you been…”

“For a very long time,” Brother Lux said, “though not long enough. I hope we may have an eternity together.”

“You must share a very strong bond.”

“Our bond is unbreakable,” Brother Lux said. “We are united in our purpose. If you are looking for his weakness, you will not find it in me.”

“If that’s so, then you must know that he hates me, and why,” I said.

The road dipped down slightly, and the path twisted until we came upon a lush, marshy riverbank, where water glittered in the faint moonlight among the shadows of heavy trees. Soon afterward, we turned down a crossroad that ran parallel to the river.

Brother Lux sighed, and then spoke. “Pius doesn’t hate you personally, Lady Frey.”

“He does hate the Ancients,” I said, “and that is enough to affect his feelings toward me.”

“Yes,” Brother Lux admitted. “When did you discover your ancestry?”

“My father told me just before he left court,” I said.

“No wonder you were so shaken that night. It must have come as a great shock.”

“When did you and Father Pius find out?” I asked.

The horses hooves clattered as road grew harder and sloped sharply upward. Brother Lux and I began our ascent into the hill country.

“This river leads us into the valley,” Brother Lux explained. ‘To answer your question- Pius  suspected your Ancient blood when we learned of your magical resistance. After he was coronated, he gained access to the breeding records and was able to confirm his suspicions.I didn’t believe him until he showed me your mother’s record. I should have- he has seen much of the world and its secrets.

“Even so, I found it difficult to believe that you don’t have a soul. I saw fear in your eyes the night you discovered us at the full moon. I heard you crying as I lead you back to the manor, though you’d tried to hide your tears and I’d pretended not to hear. I saw you blush at my brother’s advances, and I watched as the two of you fell in love. Father Pius calls all of this an imitation of life.”

“I saw my mother’s contract,” I said. “I tested the High Priest’s seal, and it was genuine. Plus, as Father Pius guessed, my magical resistance is evidence of my ancestry. Perhaps feelings can exist without the presence of a soul, or perhaps I have a soul, but it is different than yours. How can I explain any of it when I don’t even know what a soul really is, or what it does?”

“You love my brother enough to put yourself at risk; that is not an imitation.”

“I have no point of comparison. I know I feel love, but I can’t feel how you experience the same emotion. I only know that if the pain I feel now is only an imitation, then I couldn’t survive the agony of true pain.”

As I spoke, my fear and my longing for Hope flared to life again- like I’d been prodding an open wound. I fell silent and took a deep breath to steady myself.

The silence stretched on and on as we rode. Marshes gave way to rough grasses, and then the shadows of sharp stones all along the riverbank. Hills rose over the horizon before us.

The red moon was starting to dip a little lower in the sky. I gazed at it, tracing every well-known detail with my eyes, and my mind filled in the features I’d found with my telescope- light-colored mountainous regions near the white streaks known as chastity’s tears, and a dark, heart-shaped area toward the south. I could see the shadow of the moon’s full disk past the gibbous curve of light. The red moon truly was another world.

I should have studied the red moon more while I had my telescope, I thought. After all, it was a world closely tied to magic, and it was the closest world to my earth- a world that Mr. Filius had once called Terra. The Coven’s abilities were tied to the moon’s phases, and even the stolen book had hinted that the moon was connected to magic.

If the red moon really is a world like my own, I wondered, then what sort of creatures populate it? Is it populated by the demons themselves?

It was a fleeting thought- silly, even- but as soon as it crossed my mind, something clicked into place like the missing piece of a puzzle. I remembered a question I’d asked myself in Father Pius’s office- why had Father Pius really destroyed my treatise?

To hide the truth that Terra is one world among others.

Father Pius was the High Priest of a coven, and possibly the most powerful witch in the world. I realized that he must hold magic secrets unknown to the others, such as why the red moon controls magic, and where the demons they contract with dwell. If the new moon was a point of weakness, he might wish to hide it, and if he had contracted with a demon, he must be bound to protect its home.

My heart started to pound, and I looked away from the red moon to the dark scenery around me. My idea was mad, but it fit all of my evidence so well that I could not dismiss it. If it was true, it was the most dangerous secret I’d ever uncovered.

I turned my face away from Brother Lux, afraid he might see the light of discovery in my eyes.

 

 

#

 

 

When we reached the base of bluebell hill, Brother Lux stopped and tied the horse to a nearby tree. Then we ascended the hill on foot.

There were no bluebells growing on the hill, now. The slope was covered by a thin layer of frost, which glistened like fresh blood in the moonlight. The frost was so slick that I was obliged to brace myself with Mercy’s quarterstaff as I climbed.  

When we reached the crest of the hill, Brother Lux led me down a shadowed path underneath the eaves of the cottage- the same path I’d walked the night I’d discovered the coven. He motioned for me to wait for him under the eaves as he went forward to unlock the door alone. Then he gestured for me to follow him inside, and I moved under the shadow of the eaves until I reached the door.

I went inside, shut the cottage door, and placed Mercy’s staff against the wall while Brother Lux rolled back a braided rug from over the cellar door. Then he took a key ring from his pocket and undid all of the locks along the door’s edge.

“As you can see,” Brother Lux said, opening the cellar door and gesturing to the door’s underside, “my brother has covered the wood in magic sigils. I’ve tried to remove them, but they don’t seem to be written in ordinary ink. While they remain, there’s no way into the tunnel.”

I looked carefully at the door’s underside, but even in the sparse pink moonlight that filtered through the muslin curtains, it was plain to see that the wood was unblemished. Underneath, I could see the rough wood ladder that led into the tunnel.

“Brother Lux, I’m growing tired of your games,” I said.

He looked up sharply. “Do you refuse to help me?”

“How can I help you? There’s nothing on the door. The ladder into the tunnel is intact, and though it’s too dark for me to see very far, there don’t seem to be any blockages.”

“What- you can actually see a tunnel?”

“Of course I can- it’s right here.”

“All I see is a flat stone floor underneath a trap door, Lady Frey.”

I sighed in frustration. “Watch me.”

I swung my legs onto the ladder and climbed down into the tunnel. Brother Lux cried out in astonishment and stumbled back, his eyes searching all around as though he could no longer see me.

“Just put your arm through- you will feel the ladder,” I said.

Brother Lux continued to stare, but did not reply.

I climbed back up, and Brother Lux stumbled backward again as I emerged from the tunnel.

“Lady Frey,” he said, straightening his robes as though to regain his composure, “please warn me the next time you decide to pass through a stone floor.”

“I spoke to you before I ascended, but you didn’t hear.”

Brother Lux crawled forward and placed his hand over the tunnel’s entrance, waving it back and forth as though brushing a flat surface.

“It’s all in your mind,” I said. I took his hand and tried to force it through the tunnel entrance, but his hand would not budge.

“The seal is very well done- it blocks light and sound, and it cannot be forced.”

I dropped Brother Lux’s hand and sat back. “I don’t think I can actually break the seal; it simply doesn’t affect me. I will have to go through the tunnel alone.”

Brother Lux nodded grimly. He went to the window and drew a heavy curtain across the muslin, and then went to the shelves that were built into the back wall. When he returned he was carrying a candle, carefully shielding its light with his hand.

“Do you know where to find the writ? Will you be alright?”

“I can find the writ; only time can tell if I will be alright.”

 

 

#

 

 

I climbed back into the tunnel and began the lonely walk to the hidden room.

I was shocked to find that, after a few steps, the tunnel flooded with light. I looked up and saw that the magic baubles that hung overhead had lit themselves, as though to welcome me.

A shiver ran down my spine. The last time I’d gone into the tunnel with Hope, he’d promised me that the demons could not hurt me. But, I thought, if their magic could react to my presence, then he might be wrong.

I took a deep breath and continued, undeterred.

My own fears were the only things that accosted me on my walk down the tunnel. The lights occasionally flickered, and my footsteps echoed through the cavern, but no demon appeared, and no one awaited me when I reached the white room.

The room had altered very little since the last time I’d seen it. It was still bare of architectural embellishment, and still sparsely furnished. The most prominent object in the room was the magic mirror, where colored light shifted and danced in mesmerizing patterns.

I had expected the room to be ice cold, but a rush of warm air greeted me as I stepped over the threshold, though I could see no hearth and no fire. I took off Hope’s coat and draped it over a white chair, and then placed the candlestick on the floor. Hope’s silver trunk, embossed with the strange circle, was still in the corner, but next to it was a new object; a black trunk embossed with the initials G.A.F.

Before Hope and I had left for St. Blanc, I’d asked Hope to find a secure place for my telescope, and he had secured it well, indeed.

I opened the silver trunk and found two documents, the writ of condemnation and the blood oath I’d made with Hope. I stuffed the blood oath into my pocket, thankful for Hope’s foresight in hiding it, and examined the writ.

The ink still glittered black and fresh against white parchment, and the High Priest’s seal remained intact. I hesitated for a moment. Though I had already agreed to help, it was proving difficult to take the writ back to Brother Lux now that I had it in my possession. What if he used it against Hope- to prove that Hope had every reason to defy the church?

But Brother Lux is a Frey, too,  I thought. If the writ can be used against Hope, it can be used against Brother Lux.

Reason held little sway with me in my present state of mind. The anxiety that had been building as I’d walked through the tunnel alone had reached its peak, and now dangerous possibilities flared to life in my mind, refusing to be snuffed out.

What if I had destroyed Hope’s seal by coming into this cavern? What if the inquisitors bypassed Hope’s seal altogether, and dug their way in? The inquisitors, lacking my ancient blood, would at least be able to see the sigils Hope had drawn on the cellar door. If they knew that the sigils were magical in nature…

“Don’t give in to despair,” I told myself aloud. “Do what you can.”

I looked around me, wondering how I could hide or destroy evidence of magic in case the inquisitors did force their way in. My telescope, while not magic, was a heretical object, so I removed it from the black trunk and placed it in the silver one. If there was a magic seal on the silver trunk, the inquisitors might not be able to open it.

I looked up at the most damning object in the room- the magic mirror with its dancing lights. I hesitated, for it seemed a shame to destroy something so beautiful, but I knew it must be done.

I reached out and touched the mirror.

 

Part XXXXIV

The Coven, Part XXXXII

Abbess Joy and her attendants led our carriage to the end of the moonlit road, where the cathedral stood stark and white against the black sky.

“The abbey is behind the cathedral, near the dunes,” Abbess Joy said, pointing into the dark distance. “The path through the dunes is narrow, so we must go by foot.”

“I’ve never been as far as the abbey,” Brother Lux said. “Is the walk difficult? Miss Taris is unwell.”

“I’m well,” Miss Taris contradicted. Brother Lux had helped her out of the carriage, but as soon as she was on the ground she had snatched her hand back and stood on her own.

Mercy jumped down from the box and stood beside me, and coachman turned away from the conversation to tend to his horses. Abbess Joy gazed at our party with a calculating light in her bright eyes.

“I would usually call it an easy walk- pleasant, even, as there is a lovely view and a sea breeze that sweeps up from the bay. However, it’s dark now, and the wind is very cold. Sister Blessing,” she turned to the tallest of her attendants, who stepped forward. “Please help Miss Taris. Sister Love can lead the way.”

Miss Taris heaved a heavy sigh, but allowed Sister Blessing to take her arm while Sister Love lifted a lantern to light the way. Brother Lux and Mercy fell into step behind them, and Abbess Joy and I followed.

We walked on a gravel path around the side of the cathedral, past a row of stained glass that glittered on the cathedral wall. Behind the cathedral there was a small courtyard, where I could hear a fountain tinkling in the darkness. There were no lamps in the courtyard, but the gibbous moon lit the dying shrubs and dry grasses.

We passed through a creaking courtyard gate and onto a sandy path that wound through a tangle of grass and brambles. As we walked, there were fewer and fewer brambles and more and more sand, and soon the path took us between mounds of sand crowned in pink moonlight. Beyond the dunes I could see the churning, dark sea that seemed to stretch out forever.

“Have you ever seen the ocean?” Abbess Joy asked in a low voice.

Abbess Joy and I slowed our steps, allowing the party to go ahead of us a little as we talked.

“No- well, yes. I think I saw it, long ago, but it may have been a dream.”

“You did see it,” she whispered. “Try to remember.”

“It was warm,” I said. I pulled my pelisse tighter around me against the frigid salt air. “I was running my fingers through the sand. Someone was with me.”

I looked up to Abbess Joy, who was watching me intently through the darkness.

“I have many dim memories from my early childhood,” I said carefully. “I may need help to bring them into harmony with one another.”

Abbess Joy smiled and nodded. ”I will help in any way I can.”

We fell silent and quickened our steps to catch up to the others.

“The abbey is close,” Sister Love said, her voice slightly muffled by her veil. She pointed to a set of low buildings that were clustered together behind the dune’s soft shadows.

The path sloped back uphill, and soft sand gave way to gravel that crunched underfoot. The buildings jutted out at odd angles from each other, like sunrays that led to a central point.

“Sisters, please take Miss Taris and Miss Mercy to the dormitory so they can get settled. Lady Frey, Brother Lux, and I will meet you in the refectory soon.”

“I’m staying with Lady Frey until I’m certain she’s safe,” Mercy said firmly.

“Very well. Please follow me.”

The party separated, and Abbess Joy led Brother Lux, Mercy and me up a short set of steps to the first building in the starburst.

“This is the Abbot’s hall, and if you follow the buildings clockwise you will find the kitchen, refectory, library, dormitory, and infirmary. The calefactory is in the center. The work house and stables are at the pilgrim’s cloister on the other side of the cathedral.”

Abbess Joy opened the door to the first building, and then led us down a hallway lined with lamps that glared off of the black and white tiled floor. At the end of the hallway was a door, where Abbess Joy stopped and knocked.

In a few moments, a veiled sister opened the door.

“Good evening, Sister Jubilee,” Abbess Joy said. “Lady Frey and Brother Lux have arrived.”

The sister started back, and then turned her veiled face toward me in silence. After a few moments, she stood aside to let us in.

As soon as my feet hit the threshold, I saw Celeste. She was sitting on a stone hearth at the back of the room, clutching her golden-haired doll to her chest. She looked up, and when she saw me she dropped the doll to the ground and ran to me. I knelt down, and she threw herself into my waiting arms.

“Aunt Grace- you’re here at last,” she said, squeezing my neck with her skinny arms. “Miss Milton told me the most awful things. She said that Uncle Hope and Uncle Just and all of their friends have been taken away, just like Mother was. Soldiers came to Rowan Heights, and I had to go away. Miss Morton said that Uncle Hope would probably-”

Celeste let out a choked sob, and said nothing more.

“You’re safe, darling,” I said, holding her tighter. “I’m here, now. Listen, I spoke to your Uncle Hope just before I left.”

She sniffed and leaned back to look at me. “You saw him?”

“Yes, I did. He is strong, and we’re doing everything we can to free him.” I took a handkerchief from my pocket, removed Celeste’s spectacles, and dried her eyes. “He wanted me to tell you that he loves you very much, and that he wants you to be brave. Can you be brave for him?”

“Yes. I love him, too.” She pulled away from me and turned to Brother Lux. “Are you going to help, too? Can you tell Uncle Hope and Uncle Just that I love them?”

Brother Lux hesitated, shrinking a little from his niece’s innocent, pleading gaze. Then he smiled and nodded.

“Lady Frey means to send a letter back to Lord Frey. so if you wish to include letters to your Uncle and Godfather, then I will convey them all personally.”

“Thank you,” Celeste said with a small curtsey.

Brother Lux bowed in return, and then spun and quickly left the room.

Celeste gestured to me, and I cleaned closer. She cupped her hand over my ear and whispered. “I can be brave because I’ve just learned that miracles are for real.”

Celeste stood straight and put her finger to her lips before I could ask what she meant.

“Lady Grace,” she said. “I’m glad you are still wearing your spectacles.” She took her own spectacles from me and put them back on, and then turned to Sister Jubilee.

“I told you she would remember, didn’t I, Sister Jubilee?”

“I wouldn’t forget,” I said. “A promise is a promise.”

Celeste threw her arms around my neck, again. “If only Uncle Hope could have come with you! I miss him so much.”

Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away before Celeste could see. “He misses you too, darling,” I said thickly.

I held Celeste for a moment in silence, and then Abbess Joy stepped forward.

“Miss Celeste, I’m sure you must be tired and hungry. Let’s all go to the refectory together.”

Celeste nodded and took my hand, and then she turned and offered her other hand to Sister Jubilee. Sister Jubilee stepped forward at once and took her hand.

“I couldn’t go without her,” Celeste explained. “Sister Jubilee is like my guardian angel.”

 

 

#

 

 

A simple repast of bread, cheese, and vegetable stew awaited us in the refectory, which proved far more satisfying than the cakes and jellies I had eaten at the palace. For the first time in days, I had an appetite- possibly from the physical exertion of fighting the bandits.

The refectory was largely empty, since most of the sisters had already retired. Our small party sat at one end of a massive wood table that took up most of the room. There were fires blazing in the two great fireplaces set into the rough stone wall, filling the room with warmth and comfort.

Sister Love, Sister Blessing, and Abbess Joy removed their veils to eat. Sister Jubilee, who sat on the other side of Celeste, kept her veil on and refused all offers of food. Miss Taris barely touched her own food, though Abbess Joy pressed her.

“Just drink the broth, Miss Taris. It will help.”

“No- I just want to sleep,” Miss Taris said.

“You’ve had too much excitement today,” said Brother Lux, who had been awaiting us in the refectory when we’d arrived.“I wouldn’t advise that you take any tea- just water mixed with a little wine so you can sleep.”

“I’m glad to hear you speak like a physician,” Abbess Joy said. “I was under the impression that you had given up the vocation.”

“I will always be a healer,” Brother Lux replied. “But right now, the High Priest has another use for me.”

“And you would never refuse him?”

“No- never,” Brother Lux said resolutely.

“Please excuse me,” Miss Taris said, standing. “I shan’t have any more. Goodnight, and thank you, Abbess Joy.”

Miss Taris curtsied and turned to go, almost colliding with another sister on her way.

“I beg your pardon,” the sister said in a soft voice, and then bowed to Miss Taris as she departed. The sister turned to Abbess Joy and removed a folded paper from the sleeve of her robe.

“Abbess, we’ve received a message from Father Pius. It’s for Brother Lux. May I…”

“Of course,” Abbess Joy said.

The Sister turned to Brother Lux, bowed, and held out the paper, which Brother Lux took.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” the Sister said.

Something in the sweet, high tone of the voice spurred my memory. “Lady St. Croix, is it you?”

“I am Sister Purity,” she corrected before departing.

Brother Lux broke the seal on his letter and read.

“Abbess, would it be possible for me to be quartered near Lady Frey and Miss Celeste?” Mercy asked.

“Certainly,” Abbess Joy said. “I’ve prepared the cells in the dormitory’s new wing for your arrival. There is plenty of room.”

“How did you know to prepare the rooms?” Mercy asked. “We didn’t know we would come until two days ago, and there was no time to send word ahead of us.”

“To be honest, I had prepared a place for Lady Frey when I learned she was going to St. Blanc.” Abbess Joy turned to me. “I know your father, Lady Frey, and I feared that, in his ambition, he would seek to exploit you in some way. I-”

Abbess Joy’s voice hitched, but she took a deep breath and smiled, regaining her composure.

“I’m glad you’ve found your way to del Sol, Lady Frey.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” I replied, “for helping us on the road, and for giving us a place here-”

“Please do not thank me. This is a sanctuary open to all who are troubled, and you- you must think of this as your home.”

“Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Before you settle here, I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor?” I repeated, taken aback.

“This is a delicate matter; may we discuss it in private?”

For a moment no one spoke. Celeste dropped her spoon and looked back and forth between the adults, as though sensing the tension.

Finally, Abbess Joy spoke. “Can it wait until morning?”

“I’m afraid not,” Brother Lux said. “This is of vital importance.”

“If Lady Frey agrees to speak with you, I will give you the use of my private study. I will be close by, however,” Abbess Joy added with a severe look at Brother Lux.

“Mercy, will you stay with Celeste? I won’t be long,” I said.

“Be careful,” Mercy said, and then she held out her hand to Celeste.

“Come Celeste- If you get ready for bed, I will tell you about the bandits we fought on the road.”

“Mercy! No,” I protested.

Celeste’s attention, however, was already captured. “Bandits? What bandits?”

“There were six of them, just up the road,” Mercy said. “Lady Grace fought two of them at once.”

“Don’t tease me. I’m too old to fall for silly stories,” Celeste said. She held her free hand out to Sister Jubilee, who took it and followed Celeste and Mercy from the table.

“It’s the truth…”

“Don’t worry,” Abbess Joy said gently as I watched the three of them go. “Celeste could not be in safer hands than Sister Jubilee’s. She has been my assistant for almost two years, and even before that I had intimate knowledge of her character.”

“I trust you,” I said.

 

 

 

#

 

 

Abbess Joy escorted Brother Lux and I back to the Abbott’s hall, to the same office where I’d been reunited with Celeste.

“I will wait here, outside the door,” she said with a warning glance toward Brother Lux.

“I’m sure I needn’t remind you of your obligation to remain neutral,” Brother Lux said, meeting her gaze.

“I have the right to protect my sanctuary and everyone within,” she replied.

Abbess Joy left the room and shut the door behind her. Brother Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand.

“Silence,” he said. Then he turned away from the door and paced toward the great stone fireplace.

“You need only touch the door to break my spell,” he said, warming his hands. Then he turned to me and took a packet of paper from inside his robes. “I need your help, Lady Frey. Our plans have hit a roadblock, and your assistance is vital to Lord Frey’s safety.”

“His safety?” I said incredulously.

“Yes. As an act of good faith, I will tell you two secrets before I ask my favor. First, the deductions you have made are correct- I do not intend for my brother to die. I won’t tell you how or why, but Father Pius and I are manipulating the trial.”

“This is madness,” I said. “If you wish him to live, then set him free.”

“Everything has already been set in motion, Lady Frey. Even so, everything Father Pius and I are doing is for the greater good. I don’t expect you to understand, but please believe that I love my brother, and I wouldn’t sentence him to death for anything.”

“How can I believe you, after what you’ve done?”

The papers in Brother Lux’s hands were tied with a leather strap, and Brother Lux’s fingers fumbled a bit as he untied the knot. He handed me a letter from the top of the stack.

“If I’m lying, then you may use this weapon to destroy me.”

I took the letter and opened it. It was written in an unfamiliar, spidery script.

“My Dearest Lux,” I read. “It has been too long since we’ve been alone together. I long to feel your arms around me, to feel your lips against mine, to feel your-”

My face grew hot, and I was unable to read the next words aloud.

“I am sorry to show a letter of such a personal nature to a Lady,” Brother Lux said, “but it is the best evidence to use against us.”

I skimmed the letter, and at the bottom I saw the signature.

 

Forever Yours,

Pius

 

My cheeks still burned, and for a time I didn’t know what to say. I had only skimmed the letter, but that was enough.

“You and Father Pius-”

“-are lovers, yes. We’re even more than lovers, truth be told.”

“But you are both men.”

Brother Lux put a hand to his face, trembling. He was silent for a moment, and then he let out a short bark of laughter, followed by another, and another. He dropped his hand, and I understood he had not been trembling at all, but shaking with laughter.

“How could you laugh at a time like this?” I demanded. “If you just came here to laugh at me, then I will go.”

“No wait- please. I don’t mean to jest. This is nervous laughter, more than anything. I had prepared myself for your disgust and condemnation. I was ready to counter your threats and negotiate our next move. I forgot how young you are, and how sheltered you have been.

“You see, Lady Frey, common sins are shouted down from the pulpit, but some sins are only whispered about behind closed doors, and never spoken of in polite company. My sin with Father Pius is one of the latter.”

“Why?”

“Who can explain the Gods’ laws?” Brother Lux said with a shrug. “They are absolute. The fact that I’ve broken my vows to take a lover is bad enough, but the fact that my lover is a man is a sin worthy of death.”

I folded the letter. “If your sin is so grave, then why did you give this to me? I could use this evidence to blackmail or destroy you.”

“That’s more like it,” Brother Lux said with a lopsided grin so reminiscent of Hope’s that I had to turn away. “I gave you this letter to force a stalemate. If you use this letter to remove Pius and I from power now, then the inquisition will kill your husband without so much as a trial, like they have acted under prior High Priests. If I fail and allow your husband to die, then you will have nothing to stop you from using that letter to destroy me.”

I closed my eyes to block out distractions, but it only reminded me of how tired and sore my eyes were. I was too exhausted to think clearly, but I knew Brother Lux wouldn’t grant me the luxury of a night’s sleep before we continued. Despite his gentleness, Brother Lux was proving to be as difficult an opponent as Father Pius.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“There is a document that my inquisitors were searching for at Rowan Heights- a document that might save your husband’s life- but they were unable to find it. I suspect that it may be hidden in a tunnel under bluebell hill, but it’s a tunnel the inquisitors must not find. Unfortunately, my brother placed a magic seal on the tunnel’s entrance, and I don’t know how to break it.”

“You want me to break the seal for you,” I said. “The document you’re searching for is the Frey writ of condemnation, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My brother told you about our curse?”

“He showed me the writ himself. He’d thought that I might be able to break the High Priest’s seal, but I couldn’t. I may not be able to break the seal on the tunnel.”

“You can- it’s not like the High Priest’s seal. It’s only an advanced magic sigil.”

“I need to think,” I said. I turned and began to pace the room.

“This must be done soon- before the inquisitors venture to the cottage. We must not be seen.”

I closed my eyes again and thought.

Father Pius’s love note might have been a forgery, and yet I had noticed before a strong affection between Father Pius and Brother Lux that seemed beyond friendship. I remembered that I had seen them dance together the night of the coven’s revelry.

“Show me where it is written that your love is worthy of death,” I said.

I turned back to Brother Lux, who nodded. He went to a heavy, giantwood bookcase that stood beside the fireplace and removed a large leather tome.

“Volume 2 of the unabridged Litany,” he said, handing me the book. “It’s in the book of natural order, cadence 3, verse 12.”

I opened the book, flipped to the verse, and read aloud.

 

Beyond man’s hubris are other sins,

Against the nature bound within,

Eros between women, between men,

The stain of death shall lie therein.

 

I closed the book. “If I go with you, then how long will we be away?”

“It’s only a few hours by carriage to the hill country from here. I know a shortcut that runs through the valley. If all goes well, we should be back by noon tomorrow.”

I sighed deeply, and then turned to hand the book back to Brother Lux.

“I have a bad habit of overestimating my own abilities, and I regret all of the clever plans I’ve made so far. But you have forced my hand. Please don’t make me regret helping you.”

Part XXXXIII

The Coven, Part XXXXI

 

Miss Taris came to my room at a quarter to six.

She was properly dressed in a blue silk gown. Her face was clean, her hair turned up modestly, and her eyes were clear behind her shining spectacles.

“I’m glad to see you’ve recovered so quickly,” I said.

“I’m very well, thank you,” she said. “I’m well enough to travel. Brother Lux has sent me to fetch you- he’s awaiting us at the carriage.”

“No one told us that you would be coming, Miss Taris,” Mercy said.

Miss Taris smiled. “I’ve just spoken with my father, and I was able to make him understand my feelings. He agreed to release me from my betrothal, and I am going to del Sol to contemplate taking orders.”

“This is a sudden development. I’m glad you were finally able to persuade your father to release you.”

Miss Taris only smiled and nodded in reply.

“Miss Taris is not going to del Sol to take orders,” Mercy said. “She’s going to del Sol to spy on us for Father Pius.”

“Father Pius is my trusted friend and advisor. I will inform him of everything that happens at del Sol, of course.”

Mercy met Miss Taris’s triumphant gaze, and then reached down, hoisting Hope’s trunk with one arm onto her shoulder.

Miss Taris took a step back in surprise, staring at the heavy trunk, which was effortlessly supported by Mercy’s slight frame.

“Well, I suppose I had better be careful around someone as powerful as you.”

I stepped between Mercy and Miss Taris before the tension could build any further. “Come- the carriage is waiting, and the sun will set, soon.”

“Very good,” Mercy whispered to me as we followed Miss Taris. “She is powerful, but as long as you refuse to show the feelings she forces on you, she will doubt herself. If she tries to make us feel fear again, look the fear in the face.”

 

#

 

I wished I really were strong enough to fight the Prince’s army, as I had said to Hope. If I were, Mercy and I could defeat the Inquisitors and the guards, and then and storm the dungeons, freeing everyone inside. But even if I were physically strong enough to fight an army, Father Pius would still be able to destroy me. Perhaps the Coven together had enough magical strength to fight Father Pius, but he had divided and conquered them all.

All I could do now was force my steps toward the carriage that would take me away from Hope.

“Celeste is already on her way to del Sol, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said when I met him at the carriage door. “I’ve sent the Abbess word that you are both coming, and she welcomes your arrival.”

“That is impossible- how could you have sent a letter and received a response so quickly?”

Brother Lux didn’t reply. Instead, he helped Miss Taris into the carriage while Mercy climbed onto the box. Brother Lux turned back to me and offered his hand, but I waved away his help and climbed into the carriage on my own.

“The seats have been warmed, but it is a very cold evening,” Brother Lux said. “Here, Lady Frey. Take this blanket.”

I turned away from him without a word. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek, and I dare not look back at him so he might see it.

“Brother Lux is going out of his way to be kind to you,” Miss Taris said.

I wiped my face. “Miss Taris, I don’t expect you to understand how I feel, and for your sake I hope you never understand.”

The carriage pulled away from the palace, and though we traveled the same road, the splendor that had greeted me on the way to St. Blanc was gone. The fairy trees that arched over the avenue were bare, their branches reaching out like skeletal fingers. The pond was covered in a thin layer of frost, and the swans had all flown away for the winter. All of the real flowers were dead.

The sun lingered just below the cloudline and over the horizon as we drove over the wide, open park, but by the time we reached the public road the sun had set, leaving only a faint twilight. The moon and stars mostly all veiled by clouds, and soon I was staring out at a sea of darkness.

I could hear Miss Taris and Brother Lux breathing softly as they slept behind me, but I could not rest. Hope’s bruised and battered face was always on my mind, and when I did not actively try to re-direct my thoughts, my head was filled with the gruesome descriptions I’d once read as a young girl of inquisition torture machines.

We reached the crossroad village well past midnight. No adventure awaited me in the village like it had the last time I’d stayed. We had a sparse repast in the common room, and then went upstairs to rest for a few hours.

Mercy and I watched the Inn door all night. She was convinced that someone in the village might know who I was, and she didn’t trust Brother Lux to protect us. It didn’t take much persuasion for me to keep watch with her.

 

 

#

 

 

Fatigue from my sleepless night caught up with me the next day, but I tried to force my sluggish mind to stay awake and review everything I knew about Father Pius and his plans. At times I would succumb to the temptation to close my eyes, and I would fall into a fitful sleep. I would dream up plans to defeat Father Pius- each plan more impossible than the last.

We stayed the next night in a cottage just off the road, where I stayed up and kept watch with Mercy again. Then it was another day’s ride before the spire of the Cathedral del Sol appeared over the horizon.

We’d been following a crooked road that wound back and forth through the lowlands. The road grew dustier and whiter, and as it did the sun sunk lower in the sky.

When the sun touched down on the western horizon, del Sol’s spire reflected the red light so fiercely it seemed to catch fire and I had to shield my eyes as we approached. The road continued to zigzag, so that the reflection sometimes flared across the right carriage window, and sometimes the left.

The sun set, and though the Spire still shone, it faded until I could look at it directly. It was almost perfectly straight, unembellished, and taller than any spire I’d ever seen- taller even than the spire on the great cathedral in town. It looked silver in the fading light, glinting as though it were made of metal.

The path before us was still crooked, but we we no longer sloping downward. Now we were winding through patches of grass that waved in the cold, salt-scented air. We rolled on and on, but the spire didn’t seem to draw nearer.

“There’s nowhere nearby to stop,” Brother Lux said, yawning as he roused himself, “but the cathedral is only a couple of hours away.”

After a few more minutes the spire grew dark, and the stars came out one by one in the cold, clear sky. I tried to rouse my tired mind and shake away the mad dreams I’d been indulging. I would soon be with Celeste, and she would need to be told what had happened calmly and gently. I would need to be in a state to make her feel safe.

I was considering what I would say to her when the carriage jerked to a halt.

I opened to carriage window and leaned out into the frigid wind see what had happened. The dark outline of the cathedral spire still stood in the distance, blotting out the stars. Just few feet ahead of us,however, there were six men in dark cloaks blocking the road.

Brother Lux opened his door and exited the carriage. “Good evening, travelers.”

One of the cloaked men stepped forward. “Good evening, Friar. We’ve come to relieve you of your burden.”

“My burden?”

A few of the men laughed in reply, but the man who had spoken bowed cordially.

“We provide a public service, you see,” he said in a voice so low it came out almost like a hiss. “It’s a shame for so many pretty ladies to be locked away in that nunnery, so if you have any with you we will gladly take them.”

“We will gladly take any gold you have, as well,” a deep voiced brute barked from behind him.

“For heaven’s sake,” Mercy said, drawing her quarterstaff from behind the box. “If you’re bandits, just say so.”

Mercy jumped down from the box, quarterstaff spinning, and struck two blows before her feet hit the earth.

Two men fell and the other four rushed at Mercy, the largest one swinging an axe and the leader bearing a staff. Mercy dodged their blows but fell back against the force of their advance. The coachman took a flintlock from under the box and aimed it at the largest man, but then cursed loudly as the weapon jammed. He flung it aside and jumped down to flee.

Two men broke away from the fight with Mercy to pursue the coachman, but stopped when they saw Miss Taris and I through the coach window. One of the men wrenched the door open and grabbed Miss Taris, and this action- happening inches from where I sat- seemed to rouse me from my shock. I drew back my fist and hit Mercy’s attacker in the Jaw.

My hand shook with fear, and my strike had been weak. The man stumbled back out of the carriage, however, more from surprise than pain. I took the opportunity to jump down from the carriage, and then kicked the second man in the stomach as he reached for me.

This time my blow landed hard, and the second man stumbled back, clutching his stomach in pain. Blood pounded in my ears, my palms were starting to sweat despite the cold, but I followed up with a second blow without thinking.

In the heat of the moment, however, I’d forgotten about the first man, who grabbed me from behind. The man I’d just kicked took a wheezing breath and then rallied. I started to slip down out of the first man’s grasp, but I froze when I saw a flash of silver in the moonlight. The second man drew a dagger and pointed it toward my face.

“Not so feisty now, are you, girl?”

Before I could think of my next move, the man dropped his dagger and fell senseless to the ground. Mercy had appeared and hit him from behind with her quarterstaff. I sent my elbow into the first man’s stomach, and as I slipped down out of his grasp, Mercy hit him in the head with her quarterstaff, too.

“They are witches,” he groaned, clutching at his head as he ran away down the road.

“Really? Just because we can fight, we’re witches?” Mercy shook her head, turned to me, and helped me to my feet.

“Congratulations. You’ve survived your first battle.”

“That was a battle?” I said.

“It’s not as glorious as the stories, is it? A battle is really just an exaggerated brawl.”

I turned back to Miss Taris. “Are you alright?”

“I- I’m fine,” she said, though her face was flushed. “I can’t-”

“The attackers have fled,” Brother Lux said, returning with the discarded flintlock in his hand, “except for the ones you have rendered unconscious- and another over here, I see. We should leave before they awaken.”

“What about the coachman?” I asked.

“I can drive,” Mercy said.

“We should try to find him,” I argued. “He is not a young man, and the bandits might catch him.”

“Don’t worry. I saw him go through the bushes- there. We will catch up to him when we go around the next bend,” Mercy said.

“Are you certain? Brother Lux asked.

“Certain enough- I’m not going out of my way for a coward.”

“Drive, then,” Brother Lux, said. He climbed back into the carriage and I followed. Mercy climbed back onto the box, and the carriage moved forward again.

“Miss Taris, are you well? You look faint.” Brother Lux put his hand to Miss Taris’s forehead.

“That man- he was disgusting,” she said, and then blanched at the carriage’s sudden movement. “When he put his hands on me, I could feel what he wanted.”

“It’s alright, Miss Taris,” Brother Lux said. He took her trembling hands and rubbed them for warmth. “You are safe now.”

“No- they’re angry now,” Miss Taris said. “I should have used my powers to influence their feelings, but I froze. I should have fought back.”

“There’s nothing you could have done,” Brother Lux said.

“But Mercy fought back. Even Lady Frey fought back.” Miss Taris pulled away from Brother Lux and turned to me. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“Mercy has been teaching me,” I said. “I’m not very skilled, yet, but-”

The carriage lurched to a stop and, as Mercy had predicted, the coachman darted out from the bushes and jumped back onto the box. I could hear a low rumble of hooves in the distance.

“They’re angry- they’re coming back,” Miss Taris cried.

“They had friends nearby,” Mercy called from the box. “Hold on.”

The carriage lurched forward again, and I opened the carriage window to look back. I couldn’t see the horses yet, but I could see the road smoking behind us from the pounding hooves.

After the next bend, the road straightened, and the carriage gained speed as we headed straight for the cathedral. I looked back again, and I could see the horses and riders outlined in crimson moonlight. They were quickly gaining on us.

“Brother Lux- do you still have the pistol?” I asked.

He fumbled in his cloak. “I have it, but I’m afraid I can’t use it.”

“Please try,” I said.

He raised the weapon toward the window, but his hands trembled violently.

“Here- I will try,” I said.

Brother Lux held out the weapon, but then drew it back hesitantly.

“Please, trust her,” Miss Taris pleaded. “We are all in danger.”

Brother Lux handed me the weapon.

I leaned out the window and saw the riders hot on our heels. I had no time to be afraid- I took a deep breath and held the gun the way I’d seen my father hold one when he shot. I cocked the gun and raised it, bracing my shooting hand with the other and aiming the weapon toward the head rider.

As soon as I squeezed the trigger, both the carriage and the riders behind us clattered to a halt. The motion jostled my arm, and the shot rang out into the grasses beside the road.

An eerie silence fell over everything. Even the horses quieted, and the breeze stilled. I looked forward and saw three robed figures standing on the road ahead. Despite the crimson moonlight, their robes shone a spotless white and their faces were shrouded in white veils.

The middle figure stepped forward, clutching a staff in their right hand. The figure raised the staff, and Miss Taris and Brother Lux both gasped in unison. The horses behind us reared back and, as though they’d been spooked by a bolt of lightning, turned and galloped away.

The three robed figures walked forward, approaching the carriage. The figure with the staff reached out and settled the frightened horses, and then came to the carriage door.

Unsure of what else to do, I opened the door.

The veiled figure placed their staff against the carriage door and then threw back their veil, revealing a familiar, gentle face crowned with golden hair.

Abbess Joy came closer, and then reached out and took me into her arms.

“You’re safe now,” she said. “Welcome to del Sol.”

 

Part XXXXII