“Traitor!” Pride said in tone so thunderous that the dragoons, and even some of Wisdom’s men, fell back a step.
Then Pride’s men drew their arms and charged, and I heard the clash of holy arms against holy shields. Above the clatter, a soft tune drifted in the air.
It was the Grand Litany.
I drew my sword and motioned for Hope to move behind me. We fell back, toward the whistle’s origin, as Pride’s soldiers advanced on their foe.
Wisdom’s men looked around, their expressions panicked. Pride’s men fought with more ferocity.
“Reinforcements must be near,” one of Pride’s young corporals called.
“This way,” Hope whispered to me, urging me toward the road.
I turned and saw Raven, who had paused near road’s entrance. She gestured toward a little knoll, which sloped down the road into a brook that ran through a tangle of brush. Then Raven winked and climbed down into the bank.
I fell back further, deflecting stray blows as I went, until Hope and I were able to break away and run toward the knoll.
We had almost reached our destination when Hope froze in his tracks and uttered a single word.
I stopped and followed Hope’s gaze. On the road, just where it sloped downward, was a sea of scarlet capes quickly approaching. Brother Lux was at the fore, leading the inquisitors toward us.
“Hope- let’s go,” I urged.
Hope grunted, straining as though he were being held against his will. I reached out and shattered the spell that bound him.
Hope, now free, rushed at his Brother, fists raised to strike.
Brother Lux was unarmed, but he easily sidestepped Hope’s attack. While Hope stumbled past, Brother Lux raised his hand, seeming to focus his attention on the battlefield beyond.
All at once, the fighting ceased. Pride’s soldiers, the dragoons, and even Wisdom’s soldiers were held, suspended in mid action. Swords froze against shields, men held weapons over their heads, poised to strike, and one soldier hovered just over the ground in mid-fall. Hope, too, froze where he had stumbled.
Only the inquisitors continued to move. They followed Brother Lux, all unarmed and with their hands folded in prayer as Lux approached Pride.
“Do not interfere with my spell, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said.
“I won’t allow you to slaughter everyone while they are helpless,” I said.
Brother Lux paused to stare at me, his eyebrows raised as though in surprise.
“I intend to do nothing of the sort,” Brother Lux said. “I am here to prevent bloodshed.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated all of my hatred and mistrust on the spell that bound the men against their will. My feelings flooded the field, just as they had the night that I broke Wisdom’s spell. I could feel the spell shatter under my will.
Everyone remained frozen.
Lux smirked, and then turned to face Pride once more.
“I don’t harbor any ill-will toward you,” Lux said gently as he approached. “Pray, do not escalate this violence unnecessarily. Your men-”
“My men are ready to fight and die for their God,” Pride spat.
At that moment the spell broke, and once again arms clashed, men advanced and fell back; chaos erupted.
Brother Lux grappled Pride, even as Hope roused himself and ran for his brother. When Hope reached the place where Brother Lux and Pride had stood, they were gone, leaving nothing but a patch of trampled grass in their wake. Hope looked around in confusion, and then closed his eyes as though listening.
Pride’s men fell back, some of them staring at where Pride had stood, and others turning as though to flee.
“Has he abandoned us?”
“No- he would never-” Clarity began, but his voice was soon drowned out by the sounds of panic.
“We are defeated- their numbers are too great.”
“We cannot fight them without our angel.
Pride’s men stumbled back, some pushing each other, and others dropping their weapons in their rush to escape. Wisdom’s soldiers sheathed their weapons and clutched their talismans, and the dragoons clutched their weapons tighter as they watched Pride’s soldiers go back through the field, around the church, and out of sight.
I moved toward Hope, hoping we could make our escape in the chaos, but the dragoons surrounded me, blocking my path. A pair of dragoons stepped forward to flank Hope, as well. Hope, ignoring his new captors, opened his eyes.
“Miss Taris, did you cause that panic?” he said.
One of the inquisitors stepped forward, lowering their cowl to reveal long, golden hair.
“Lux isn’t the only one with power.” she said, winking at me. Then she turned toward the battlefield.
“Fear not,” Miss Taris said, a beatific smile on her face. “Wisdom is with us.”
The soldiers dropped their talismans, and the dragoons dropped their defensive stances. A collective sigh of relief seemed to settle over the battlefield.
Sir Beaumont stepped forward and knelt, taking Miss Taris’s pale hand gently in his own.
“My Lady, I am your humble servant,” he said. “Give your command, and I will obey.”
A very pretty blush painted Miss Taris’s cheeks. She lowered her eyes as though in embarrassment, but when she spoke her voice was strong.
“We have taken the tunnels, but we need a guide,” she said. “Please take us through, and be ready to fight. Once we are safely past the Cathedral Lux, you will have your promised reward.”
She raised her head and spoke to the other dragoons. “You have done well this day; you will all have your promised reward.”
The dragoons stood at attention and saluted Miss Taris.
An inquisitor stepped forward to stand beside Miss Taris and lowered his hood. He had long dark hair, and he wore a concerned expression in his black eyes.
“Are there any injured among you?” he called out to the battlefield.
A few men stepped forward, and then cried out in joy as their wounds glowed with a golden light and vanished.
Then the inquisitor spun to face me.
“You are the Ancient girl, are you not?”
“I am,” I said, sheathing my sword. I cast my gaze around, but could not see any avenue of escape.
“My apologies, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a low bow. “I cannot heal you as I have the others, but I will tend to your wounds if you will allow.”
“I am uninjured, but thank you,” I said.
“That is a great relief, my Lady,” he said. “I am Fortune, at your service.”
Hope stepped forward again, his guards moving with him in lockstep. “Where is my brother?”
“Lux isn’t far. He is distracting Pride,” Miss Taris said. “We can’t allow Pride to disrupt the peace we’ve so recently won, here.”
“The peace?” I said incredulously.
Miss Taris nodded. “Come and see.”
The inquisitors, Wisdom’s soldiers, and the dragoons all walked together up the road to Rogue Village. They went in no particular order, except that Hope and I were surrounded by a tightly-knot group of dragoons at all times.
As we walked, the winds swept the clouds aside, revealing patches of sky filled with twinkling stars. The quarter moon, high in the sky, peered out from between clouds before covering its face again, like a child playing a peeking game.
The inquisitors began to sing an unfamiliar, but cheerful song in the unmistakable cadence of a litany. After a verse, wisdom’s soldiers joined in with so much enthusiasm that even the dragoons began to sing tentatively, as though the words were unfamiliar.
One of Wisdom’s soldiers smiled at the dragoons, seeming to understand. He raised his voice, singing in diction clear and crisp enough to make the words clear. The soldiers all followed suit, and the song swelled loud enough to fill road and field.
Peace on Earth,
And Heaven’s song,
Echo winter- summer long.
And human child,
Join in spring and autumn mild.
Peace on earth,
Pray to Wisdom,
Let joy ring!
The soldier’s feet, though weighed down with armor, moved as though in a dance down the sloping road. Even the inquisitors, robed and dignified, walked with a spring in their steps.
Ahead of us, I could see the lights of the village, which seemed to twinkle in time with the music. The town was surrounded by a low wall, but the gates were flung wide open, despite the late hour. The guards gave us friendly nods and waves, and we walked into town unimpeded.
Pride’s prediction that the town would be shuttered proved to be incorrect. All of the shops had open doors and open windows that blazed with lamplight. The people walked from shop to shop, some singing, others bearing trays of fruit, nuts, and sweets, and still others handing garlands of spring flowers over the windows and doors.
Hope shot me a bewildered look, but I could only shrug in reply.
When we reached the square, we were met with a strange sight. In the center of the square stood a monument- a large wooden statue of the symbol of Order atop a platform. Men with tools and lumber stood around the statue, some measuring the monument and others taking notes as though they planned to alter it.
A carnival-like atmosphere filled the square around the monument. There were people all around with food, flower garlands, and musical instruments talking, singing, and dancing.
Wisdom’s inquisitors and dragoons dispersed into the crowd, seemingly unable to resist such delights. Hope took my hand, and we edged our way through the crowd toward a dark alleyway just off the square.
“This is a conquered people in the aftermath of a battle?” I whispered. “What happened to Order’s supporters?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t intend to stay long enough to find out,” Hope whispered back. “Come- now’s our chance.”
We both ducked into the narrow alley, but we did not get far before we found someone blocking our path.
Miss Taris, standing tall with folded arms, smiled serenely as we approached.
“Step aside,” I said, putting a hand to the hilt of my sword. “I don’t wish to hurt you.”
Miss Taris ignored me, turning instead toward Hope.
“If the chance to rule all of Aeterna isn’t enough to make you stay,” she said, “perhaps I have something else that will.”
She reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.