Passing through the gates at Rowan Heights felt like entering a prison cell.
I was glad that Celeste had fallen asleep on the carriage ride home, so she could not see my involuntary shudder as I gazed up at the manor on the hill above us. While Celeste and I were in town, I had considered taking Celeste straight to my father and the high priest, and telling them everything I had seen the night before. I didn’t like the idea of sending my own husband to prison, but Celeste’s safety was paramount.
Fortunately, common sense had stopped me before I’d tried anything so hasty. No one would take my word over my husband’s, especially with such a fantastic story, and I had no evidence to present against him. Indeed, when I remembered the events of the night before, I began to doubt my own sanity. However, Hope’s confession to me that he was a heretic, and his previous attempts at mesmerizing me, kept me from dismissing last night’s events as a dream.
The carriage hit a bump, and Celeste yawned and shifted on her seat.
I thought again about the nasty rumors I’d heard about Hope and his treatment of Celeste’s mother. I had to admit that Hope seemed to genuinely care for Celeste. He didn’t treat his ward with the courtly gallantry he bestowed on me- rather, he showed true affection. He had gone out of his way to please her on multiple occasions, and when he looked at her, his smiles actually reached his warm brown eyes.
The carriage rattled onto the gravel path that led to the manor doors.
Perhaps, I reasoned, I should appeal to the goodness that lay within Hope- the part of him that loved Celeste. Maybe, if I tried, I could open his eyes to the danger he was putting in Celeste’s way. In the meantime, in case he could not be convinced, I would have to gather evidence of…
The carriage slowed and stopped at the manor door.
I sighed to myself and opened the carriage. Why did my mind flinch away from the word? The horror would be real, whether I shut my eyes or gazed upon it. Hope was practicing dark magic. He and his friends were witches.
My blood ran cold as I realized that if I did present the high priest with evidence against Hope, Hope would not be imprisoned. He would be tortured until he gave up his fellow witches’ names, and then they would all be burned at the stake. Hope, Lux, Chastity, and the other dark robed figures- whom I strongly suspected were Hope’s other friends- would die.
After putting Celeste down for a nap, I instructed Mercy to unpack the parcels we’d brought back from town, and then I went up to my study. I opened a book and placed it on the desk in front of me, in case anyone came in, and I continued to think.
I would collect evidence, I decided. Even if I was reluctant to use it, I thought it might eventually be the saving of me. Unfortunately, Hope might still be watching me for signs his hypnosis hadn’t worked, so I would have to avoid the library, the cellar, and the cottage for the time being. I had often wondered if the high tower of the manor’s east wing would be a good viewing spot, so I might request that my telescope be moved to the manor from the cottage without suspicion.
I wondered, as I flipped my book’s pages idly back and forth, if Hope had given me the telescope in order to tempt me away from the faith. But no, I thought with a bitter sigh. Hope didn’t care about me enough to tempt me. He had merely amused himself by giving an inappropriate gift to a sheltered girl, and laughed at her conflict in receiving it.
I didn’t care. The red moon was still gibbous, and I felt I must view its mysteries before it waned.
“Selfish girl,” I muttered to myself.
Just then there was a sharp knock on the door, and then Chastity entered before I could answer.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Frey,” Chastity said with a curtsey. “I’m in need of your assistance.”
I stood. “Is Celeste already awake?”
“No- the young lady is resting quietly. Rather, I need your help with Lord Frey.”
“With Lord Frey?”
“Indeed. He is in a terrible state, and I don’t believe I can persuade him to be rational. I need you to speak to him.”
“But, I don’t think I could…” I trailed off as I remembered Hope’s power. Chastity knew that I could resist it.
“Don’t worry, my Lady. I believe that your gentle ways may reach him better than my rough manners. Come with me.”
I nodded and followed Chastity back downstairs.
As we passed the drawing room, I was surprised to hear Lady Willoughby’s Lute, accompanied by her sweet voice and punctuated here and there with general laughter. The sounds of music and merriment provided a stark contrast to the somber atmosphere the night before.
Just underneath the music, though, I could hear a low, mournful cry. It echoed down the hall, and grew stronger as Chastity and I walked down the hall.
Chastity opened the door to the morning room and frowned. “Oh no- he’s fallen asleep.”
I looked into the room and saw Hope lying on a sofa, cradling an empty bottle of wine to his chest. His eyes were closed, but his body rocked slightly back as forth as he groaned.
“No- no please, not Prudence. Please, please…” he groaned before his voice broke off into unintelligible cries.
Chastity bustled across the room and bent down, taking the bottle from him and brushing his hair away from his sweat-drenched face.
“Wake up,” she demanded in a voice that thundered through the room.
Hope jerked up and opened his eyes, and then he pushed at Chastity with feeble arms. “Leave me- I don’t want you,” he mumbled, laying down again.
“I won’t leave you in such a state,” Chastity said firmly.
Hope laughed dryly, and then turned away from her. “Save your compassion for someone who deserves it. I won’t pretend, today. I can’t pretend.”
Chastity beckoned me into the room with one hand, and shook Hope’s shoulder with her other.
Hope lay still for a few moments, seemingly unmoved, and then he stood up swiftly and put his hand on Chastity’s head, staring into her eyes.
Without thinking I stepped between them and took Hope’s other hand. “Please, Hope; please listen to her.”
Hope cut me off with another rough laugh and turned away. “Of course you would bring her, just when she is least wanted.”
“Hope, I know you don’t like me, but-”
“Yes, well spotted,” he said scathingly. He stumbled back to the couch and half-collapsed onto it. “Just when I’m comfortable in my loneliness, they punish me with a beautiful wife. And now my own servant won’t allow me to suffer. Go away. Go away, all of you.”
His voice boomed around the room, almost as loudly as Chastity’s had, and I nearly fled the room in fear. But then Hope seemed to collapse in on himself, and I couldn’t bear the sight.
“Think of Celeste,” I said. “She would not wish for you to suffer.”
“She would if she knew-”
“She needs you.” I interrupted.
Hope looked up at me. His eyes seemed blank and unseeing, as though he were blinded by pain. Then he turned to Chastity.
“One night won’t kill me, you know. I just want to feel this pain for one night. Tomorrow I will wake and life will continue.”
Chastity opened her mouth as though to answer, but at that moment, Mercy burst into the room.
“Oh, Miss, I’ve been looking everywhere. Coach has gotten into a fight with Mr. Poe, and Mr. Poe says that he will leave his place, and-”
“Very well, Mercy, I’ll be there shortly. Lady Frey-” Chastity said, turning to me. “I leave this to you.”
And without another word, Chastity turned and left.
Hope stumbled over to me and placed his hands on my shoulders. He leaned so close to me that could feel his breath on my face- hot and stinking of bitter wine.
“Dear Grace, don’t you hate me? Don’t you wish for me to suffer?”
“Why would I?” I asked.
“I don’t love you,” he whispered. “I’m your husband, and I don’t love you at all.”
“That’s fine. I don’t love you.”
Hope put his head heavily on my shoulder, as though he could no longer support it on his own. “That’s a relief. I thought you were using Celeste to impress me.”
“Oh, no. I really love Celeste. But it doesn’t follow that I love you.”
“I hold you in contempt, you know. I compare you to Celeste’s mother every day, and you are insipid and ugly and spiritless compared to her. Sometimes I can’t tell if you are shy, or just stupid. Now, do you hate me?”
“I hold you in contempt, as well.” The words I wouldn’t normally have dared tp speak tumbled out, fueled by a flush of anger. “You are artful and scheming. You hide your true face behind vapid flattery.”
Hope stood upright, and looked at me in triumph.
“Even so, you’ve always treated me with kindness, so I cannot hate you and-” I shut my eyes so I wouldn’t see his triumphant face.
“And you won’t give me the satisfaction.”
Hope put his head back on my shoulder. “Remind me to behave like a brute to you, tomorrow. I don’t have the energy, today.”
I laughed, then, so hard that I almost doubled over. I was sweating, and my arms and legs were trembling as though with exertion, but the knot of dread that had sat in my stomach all day had loosened. Quarreling with Hope had dispelled some of my fear.
“Come, let me take you upstairs, at least. You should rest,” I said.
Hope laughed, too. “Yes, take me to bed. I want to sleep.”
I supported Hope’s weight as best as I could as we made our way back down the hallway, and then stopped at the stairs.
“You’re stronger than you look,” he said.
“You’re lighter than you look,” I countered. “I cannot bear all of your weight, though, so do take the bannister.”
“As you wis-wish,” Hope slurred, and he took the bannister as he stumbled up the stairs. I supported his other arm, but I thought I would be little help, as small as I am, if he were to fall.
We made it up the stairs and into the master bedroom, and he fell onto the gold brocade bedspread without letting go of my arm. I attempted to maneuver him under the covers, but his body remained still, and when I heard his soft snores, I decided to let him be.
I was unable to extract my hand from his, so I sat on the bed beside him and stared out the sweeping, westward window. There was a view of the valley and the brook that wound between the hills, which glimmered in the golden evening light. After a time, the sky grew rosier, and I could hear the gentle calls of the shepherdess as she led her sheep downhill. Then, the sun sank behind the hills.
Hope had relaxed his grip on my arm, and I was able to pull my hand away. I crept to the door and opened it carefully, trying to keep the hinges from squeaking.
“No- no please. Help me- help me,” I heard Hope moan behind me.
I rushed back to the bed and saw that Hope was tossing and crying out in his sleep once more.
“Hope,” I whispered, and took his hand.
Hope quieted, became still, and his breathing settled again.
I sat back on the bed and placed a pillow behind my back. I watched Hope’s face as it relaxed- his forehead smoothed, his lips opened slightly, and his eyelashes fluttered against his pale cheeks.
My own eyelids grew heavy, and I leaned back against the pillow and let them close.
When I awoke, the sky through the western window was soft pink, and the room was quiet and still. I couldn’t hear Hope’s snoring, and I no longer held his hand. A shiver ran up my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I had the strange sensation of being watched.
I sat up and turned to see Hope, who was standing beside the bed in a fresh suit of clothes. He was regarding me intently, as though he meant to take my likeness.
“I beg your pardon- I didn’t meant to-”
“You stayed with me all night,” he said.
“I was going to leave you, but as soon as I got up you became restless.”
“So you came back, and held my hand, and my nightmares went away,” he said.
“Why would you help me, after the terrible things I said?”
“You were drunk,” I said. “And I said terrible things, as well.”
“You have no idea what you did for me,” Hope said. “I haven’t slept peacefully in ten years.”
I slid off of the bed and stood up. “Why not?”
“I’ve been plagued by nightmares ever since-” he took a deep breath, “ever since Celeste’s mother left. I failed to keep her safe, but I loved her. I really did love her.”
“I believe you. None of the gossips who claim otherwise have seen you with Celeste, or witnessed your pain.”
“The dumb supper the other night was for her; it’s been one year since she died.I went to bed last night intending to suffer through the nightmares, but I woke up to find grace.”
I pressed his hand again, and turned to go. “May the gods bless you.”
“Wait- don’t go. Is there anything I can do for you- anything at all?”
“There is one thing I meant to ask. Could you have my telescope brought to the manor? I wish to try the view from the east tower.”
“An excellent idea, but is that all? Surely, I can do more for you.”
“If you would-” I hesitated. Was it too soon?
“I know you dislike it, but I believe Celeste would benefit from proper religious instruction. As this is the morning of week’s begin-”
“You would like us all to go to to church? Your favors are not well-chosen. I was going to attend this morning, anyway.”
“You will attend? Truly?” I could not suppress my smile.
Home smirked in reply. “Nothing could keep me away from the cathedral, today.”
A party as merry as the one from the previous afternoon- inappropriately merry- made their way to the cathedral Tenebris that morning.
The hill-country cathedral wasn’t half as grand as the cathedral Lux. It was built in an old style of architecture and made from rough-hewn stone from the nearby quarry. There were a few archways and no columns, and a single, crumbling angel guarded the oak door.
Brother Lux led our party into the cathedral dressed in somber vestments, and with his head bowed in respect. He ignored Lady Willoughby and Mrs. Auber’s idle gossip, and Hope and Celeste’s happy chatter. Lord Willoughby, who walked by me in silence, had a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step.
After we entered the cathedral, and Brother Lux parted with us to join the clergy in the front, everyone still smiled far too much. Celeste swung Hope’s hand as she skipped up the aisle, and as Lady and Lord Willoughby parted with us to find their family’s pew, I could hear Lady Willoughby giggle.
There were some whispers as Hope walked up the aisle hand in hand with Celeste, but otherwise, the Cathedral was quiet. After we’d been seated, a grey-bearded priest entered wearing plain black robes, free of all jewels and adornments. The choir, similarly robed, remained seated.
“This morning, we are a shepherdless flock. There is no one protect us from the darkness, and no one to guide us toward the light.”
The priest paused and looked out over his congregation with a grave expression, seeming to frown at every individual in turn, before he continued.
“Yesterday morning, former High Priest Sauris was found dead. His name will be struck from the annals, and he will not be buried with honors, because his last act was to defy the will of the gods, and take his life with his own hands.”
The crowd seemed to explode all at once. There was yelling, crying, and frightened babble all around me. The priest made no move to restore order. Instead, he continued to stare gravely at the crowd.
Hope had taken Celeste in his arms. “Oh, my darling, it’s over. The worst is over.”
Celeste shot me a frightened look.
Across the aisle, Lady and Lord Willoughby were also embracing, but then there were many embracing in the crowd. Mrs. Auber, sitting with a group of ladies all dressed in black, wept openly.
I hardly knew when the crowd settled, and barely heard the prayer the priest offered when the weeping was done. Before I could properly think about what had happened, I was outside again, walking with Hope and Celeste to the carriage.
I turned around, and saw that Lux was running to catch up with us.
“I shan’t accompany you home,” he said. “I’ve just received orders to travel to Cathedral Lux. My master, Monsignor Pius, is a candidate to replace the high priest.”
Hope embraced his brother, and then took a brown scroll-case from his pocket.
“Just as we expected,” he said, pressing the scroll into his brother’s hands. “Here are the papers you will need. Good luck.”
I stared at the scroll, and I found my mind returning to the day I’d met Hope. Was that scroll the same object I’d seen him take from Father Sauris? It seemed to be, but I could hardly trust my own memory, in that moment.
I looked back at Hope, who was smiling at his brother as he waved farewell, and I found myself torn between suspicion and the fragile friendship we’d begun to forge.
\*% *(&* (%|\ $(%|. Translated: The high priest dies.
The Coven, Part XII