The Coven, Part I

The Three Gods

 

 

On the morning of week’s end, on the first day of summer, destiny put me on the path to darkness.

I was attending church that morning. There is a great cathedral on the edge of the city, The cathedral Lux, which my family has attended daily since I was born. The Cathedral Lux is the largest cathedral in the world, built by the first King of Aeterna, King Innocent I. It hardly seems like a building at all when one is inside, since it’s so large and so full of windows. Every morning the whole cathedral is flooded with light, which illuminates row after row of gleaming wood pews and, ahead, the white marble altar. My family sits above the main floor in a balcony reserved for the noble class, in a special section near the front.

This morning, I looked at the section next to us, which is usually empty, and saw a man sitting there alone. He had long brown hair, which obscured his face as he examined the liturgy in his hands.

I turned back to the marble altar, and to the old priest who stood on top.  The altar was surrounded on all sides by a chorus of musicians, whose voices rose and fell as he spoke, accentuating all of the most important words in his sermon. I often wondered how long they needed to practice, to make everything work so perfectly.

“The Three Gods, whom we serve,” he was saying, “are vital to us. Likewise, our service to them is vital to maintaining harmony in our kingdom, our world, and the entire cosmos.”

At the word ‘cosmos,’ the choir’s voices swelled in a dramatic forte.

“The first God is named Reverence, who reminds us to give honor and respect not only to the Gods, but to our mortal masters here on earth. Children, revere your parents; wives, revere your husbands; peasants, revere your lords, and slaves, revere your masters. In such reverence, you will find security and guidance.”

The choir’s tone mellowed, then- sweet and relaxing.

“The second God is named Chastity, who reminds us to give up our earthly desires and selfish passions, and to serve our church and our masters with all our hearts. Be humble, work hard, and resist the temptations of pleasure.”

The priest paused here, adjusting his spectacles, which flashed in the morning sunlight more brightly than even the gems on his vestments, though not as brightly as his bald head.

“The last God is named Order, and he is above all others. Through service to him we are able to progress peacefully from one generation to the next, without any change. Change is instability, and instability is chaos. Trust in the order the gods have created, and we will all live lives of prosperity and peace.”

The choir swelled again, this time so powerfully that the seats rumbled.

The man in the next section looked up from his liturgy, and tossed a wave of dark hair over his shoulder. I could see his face, now. He was young- he could not be more than 30. His skin was fair and his eyes dark. He had high cheekbones and a high brow- everything elegant and regal. He smirked at the priest for just a moment, and then leaned over his liturgy once more.

I could feel my face grow hot. The smirk had seemed very bold-almost blasphemous- but I quickly remembered myself. Who was I to judge his behavior when I, a girl and possibly his inferior in rank, wasn’t paying proper attention?

I turned back to the priest, and under my breath I uttered a small prayer for forgiveness.

The priest gestured for the congregation to rise, and I took my liturgy from under my seat to join the chorus. I could still see the strange man over my father’s head. He, too, stood with his liturgy, but he did not sing.

My father jabbed me sharply in the ribs, and I quickly turned my eyes away from the strange man and back to my liturgy.

#

 

 

When the service was done, my father fixed me with a stern look, which was just as frightening now that I stood an inch taller than him than it had been when I was a small girl.

“I expect you to pay closer attention to tomorrow’s service. Go to the carriage and wait for me; I have some business to discuss with the priest.”

“Yes, father.”

My father sped away from me with much more agility than one would expect from a man his age, and as soon as I saw him disappear into the dissipating crowd, I let out a heavy sigh.

“Pardon me, Miss Ainsworth.”

I spun around and saw the dark haired man standing behind me. He held out a small book bound in black leather.

“You left your litany on the pew,” he continued.

“Oh! Thank you, Mr…”

“I beg your pardon; I am Lord Frey. I am an acquaintance of your father’s.  I’ve not had a chance to speak with Lord Ainsworth in person, but my father was acquainted with Lord Ainsworth, and I seem to have inherited my father’s acquaintance along with his house and property.”

I felt my lips twitch upward, but I quickly stopped myself from smiling. “Please accept my condolences for your loss,” I said.

Lord Frey bowed slightly in acknowledgement. “But, Miss Ainsworth, you have no escort. I see that your father has left you.”

“My governess is waiting for me below, but thank you anyway- for your concern, I mean,” I stammered.

“Aren’t you a little old for a governess?”

I silently agreed with him, but I couldn’t find a way to answer him without complaining about my father’s treatment of me. I curtsied, and Lord Frey fixed me with a bemused smile, which I found myself blushing fiercely under. I finally turned away and hurried downstairs to my governess.

 

#

 

“Hurry Miss- you don’t want to keep your father waiting,” my governess, Miss Wilcox, said as soon as she saw me.

She was a young woman, not much older than me, whom my father had hired shortly after my last governess left us to marry. Miss Wilcox was not well educated, and she had nothing to teach me about music, language, philosophy, religion, or history that I didn’t already know. She was, however, very pretty and very exacting about deportment. She tried in vain to turn me into a lady, attempting to overcome my shyness with constant scolding. The only success she had was in dressing my hair and clothing me like a doll, though I had to admit I admired her taste in clothes.

Just this morning, for example, I was dressed in a full-skirted gown of soft, black lace, edged in cream roses, which Miss Wilcox brushed imaginary lint from as soon as she saw me.  She then smoothed my hair and straightened my bonnet before scolding me to the carriage, which was waiting at the end of the street, conveniently away from the crowd outside.

“Your father is still not here,” she said as the footman helped me into the carriage.

“I believe he had some business with the priest,” I replied.

“Well, you wait here, and I will see how long your father will be,” she said. She hurried away as the footman shut the carriage door.

I leaned against the door and stared at Miss Wilcox’s retreating form until her cream gown disappeared through a crowd of vested monks, who stood like a brown wall between the carriage and the crowd of churchgoers. I amused myself in watching them as they stood clustered on the lawn, whispering to each other gravely, until I grew drowsy and bored.

Minutes came and went. The sun had risen higher in the sky, its light glancing off the high, golden spire of the cathedral, and still there was no sign of my father or Miss Wilcox. Finally, the whispering monks parted to let someone through, and I sat up in anticipation, gazing more anxiously out of the carriage window.

I saw the old priest, still dressed in his jeweled vestments, emerge from the crowd, but my father did not appear. Instead, I saw the man from the cathedral, Lord Frey, walking behind him.

The two men appeared to be arguing. Lord Frey was walking in long strides, as though to catch up to the older man, and his cloak was half thrown off his shoulder as it swept the ground behind him. His eyes were narrowed in anger, and though I couldn’t make out his words, he seemed to be almost shouting.

The priest turned back to Lord Frey and smiled. They stopped quite close to my carriage, and I could see both men’s faces as they faced each other. The priest was smiling a cold, fishy smile- a triumphant light seemed to gleam in his eyes.

Just then, Lord Frey raised his right hand, and for a moment I was afraid he would strike the priest. However, he merely touched the priest’s forehead, and the priest slumped forward, closing his eyes as though he had fallen asleep where he stood. Then, slowly, Lord Frey raised his hand, and the priest looked forward once more with a glazed expression.

The priest took something from his robe’s deep pocket and handed it to Lord Frey. Lord Frey then pointed, and the priest turned away slowly, and walked back to the cathedral.

I fell back against the seat, my heart pounding, though I couldn’t quite explain why. Lord Frey was no doubt an important man, but even a noble could not defy the church. Nevertheless, he’d just stood up to a priest- a high priest of all people, and he had won.

 

The Coven, Part II

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