The Coven- Interlude

 

At times, when my mind is clear, I can feel a rhythm and a pattern to the world.

 

One rainy afternoon, I felt it as never before. The pitter-patter of rain on the window syncopated with my heartbeat. The distant thunder rumbled in my stomach. My pencil tapped the paper in time with the ticking clock.

 

My eyes drooped, but my hands were working through my chart almost automatically as I plotted the stars I’d been tracking, checking my redundant work against Sir Boromir’s observations even as I traced my new ones. The real work was done, the calculations complete, and now I merely followed the patterns to their conclusion.

The latest wonder I’d uncovered were two small stars that attended the wandering star, Tigris. The small lights had moved around and around Tigris, never straying, and never breaking formation. When I closed my eyes, I could still see them dancing- dancing…

I could see all of the stars now- clearly in my mind as they spun on their epicycles across the crystal spheres. Some were fast, some slow, but all connected. Their speed, their size, and the sphere to which they clung all held some secret meaning, if only I could grasp it. I reached out toward the stars, and they grew closer and closer until they looked like giant spheres – spinning and whirling, inexplicably collapsing and growing, and rushing through a great, black sea as they pulled smaller stars in their wake.

“Lady Grace!  Don’t fall asleep.”

I opened my eyes to see Celeste’s impatient face inches from my own. I straightened at my table and yawned.

“Uncle Just was playing with me,” Celeste said with a pout, “but now he’s gone riding.”

“In the rain?”

“Yes- he said that the rain was nothing, to a good soldier. Uncle Hope is busy writing a letter, but if your work is dull enough to put you to sleep, perhaps you’d better play with me?”

I nodded and put my notes aside. “If you like, you may practice the new song I taught you. Or I could help you review your arithmetic.”

“No- Lady Grace, don’t tease. We’ve already finished lessons for the day. Don’t you know any games?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” I said. “I never had any brothers or sisters to play with. Perhaps you can find a book to occupy you.”

Grace sighed and threw herself onto a sofa. “Oh Lady Grace, the books you gave me are lovely, but I can’t read all day. I need to move about, or I’ll go mad.”

Hope, who’d been sitting near the sitting-room window, laughed and closed his writing desk.

“Miss Celeste, you’re in luck. I did grow up with a brother, and I’ve just finished my note to him this very moment. However- looking back, I must admit we never played any games that were appropriate for young ladies, or to be played indoors, either. I propose that you have an afternoon lesson, today.”

“Oh Uncle, no!”

“I haven’t finished,” Hope threw his arm over the back of his chair and turned to face Celeste- his eyes glittering with mischief. “I was about to propose a dancing lesson. You’ve never had one, have you?”

“Dancing? But how can I? If Lady Grace taught me to dance, then there would be no-one to play music for us.”

“Nonsense- if Lady Grace will agree to provide the music, then I shall be both your dancing master and your partner.”

All at once, Celeste jumped up from the couch and clapped her hands. “Oh please, Lady Grace. Please play for us.”

“Of course I will, Celeste.”

Hope called for Chastity, who entered the room alone and- without sending for any footmen- cleared away the tables and chairs, lifted the entire couch with one arm, and single-handedly rolled back the heavy carpet as though it were nothing.

Then Chastity turned back, bowed, and left.

“Here we are, my angel- we should have plenty of room to dance, now,” Hope said to Celeste.

Celeste, staring wide-eyed at where Chastity had exited, said nothing.

“Let us start with the allemande. Stand just here, across from me, and try to match my movements. Grace- let’s hear a few bars of the music.”

I opened the clavichord and played, and then Hope began to dance while Celeste attempted to follow along. He stopped me after a time, and then performed the dance more slowly, counting along to his movements.

Hope’s grace or patience won out after a time, and Celeste caught on, dancing and laughing as they performed the steps together. She eventually was able to make a figure across the floor with him, along with some imaginary couples.

“Excellent-excellent,” Lady Willoughby’s voice called from the doorway. “I haven’t seen such splendid dancing in ages.”

Celeste turned to Lady Willoughby and curtseyed.

“Good afternoon, Lady Willoughby,” Hope said with a bow of his own. “To what do we owe the pleasure on such a dismal afternoon?”

“The pleasure is all mine. I do hope you don’t mind my intrusion. I come bearing a message for you, from my husband.” Lady Willoughby turned to me with a saucy smile. “Though now that I arrive, I recall a promise I made to Lady Frey.”

“A promise?” Hope said.

Lady Willoughby nodded, thrust a letter to Hope, and then came to the clavichord and sat on the bench beside me. “You must remember, Lady Frey.”

I looked at the impromptu dance floor, and then my cheeks burned as I remembered Lady Willoughby’s former threat to arrange a ball.

“Surely, you don’t think that we were practicing for anything in particular,” I said. “It’s only that Celeste was bored, and-”

Lady Willoughby cut me off with a laugh. “I thought that you had overcome your shyness. Don’t tell me you cannot dance!”

“I am able to dance, Lady Willoughby, but-”

“Then there is no reason to make a fuss. I will arrange everything- all I shall require of you is that you make up a list of everyone you would like to invite. I shall leave your dress up to you, as well- you always dress so nicely.”

I looked over at Hope, who was watching with an amused expression.

“I am all for this little plan.” Hope said. “I’ve just read Lord Willoughby’s note, and it contains very good news. I’m in the mood to celebrate.”

Lady Willoughby stood, her painted lips fixed in unusually firm expression. “Now is the hour of our triumph, and we should show the world.”

“Your triumph? What triumph?” Celeste asked.

Hope laughed, “why- that you and Lady Grace have come to live with us, of course. How happy I am, now that you’re here!”

Hope picked Celeste up and spun her around.

Celeste giggled, and then said, “does this mean I may go to the ball?”

“I’m afraid you are too young now, but it won’t be long until-” Hope’s words seemed to choke him then, and he held Celeste more tightly. “It won’t be long until you come of age, and I give a ball in your honor.”

 

#

 

Lady Willoughby stayed at the manor until dinner, going over plans for the ball, and I wasn’t able to work again until late. After Celeste was put to bed, I went up to my study, and worked until well past midnight.

I didn’t pause in my work until there was a timid knock on the door, and Mercy entered with a candle.

“Excuse me, Lady, but it’s getting quite late. Shall I turn your bed down?”

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mercy. I will likely stay up all night.”

“If you’ll pardon me, you really should get your rest.”

“I can sleep in a little tomorrow.”

Mercy nodded, but then she inched further into the room and shut the door, still clutching the candlestick.

“Will you need the candle, or oil for your lamp?”

“I have both candles and oil, thank you. Is something the matter?”

Mercy fussed with the candle some more, and then placed it on the table.

“Lady- it’s so very dark and late, that I thought you might like some company.”

I smiled a little- Mercy was obviously frightened, and needed the company more than I did. Then the smile faded. Hope had been reluctant to leave me alone lately, and he’d sent Mercy to guard me once before, the night of the full moon. Perhaps, I thought, he’d sent her go guard me again.

“Thank you, Mercy. I am tired. Let me finish this line, and then we’ll retire.”

I blotted my notes and closed my books, and then turned out the lamp.

The hallways were drafty, and Mercy had to walk carefully, shielding the candle as she went. The light flickered and danced madly on the dark walls, casting weird shadows. As we neared the stairwell, I heard a scream that send chills down my spine.

“Oh Lady, please don’t stop. I can hardly stand it,” Mercy said.

“Shh,” I said- “The screams are coming from downstairs.”

“I thought I heard it come from down the hall,” Mercy argued. “It must be poor little Celeste. I will go to her once you’re settled.”

“No, it can’t be Celeste. Her room is in the opposite direction.” I went down the stairs a little ways “I’m certain- the sound is coming from downstairs.”

“Oh Lady- it isn’t a ghost, is it?”

“Of course it isn’t. Someone may need us- we must go to them. Take my hand, and you won’t be afraid.”

“You’re too good, my Lady,” Mercy said as she took my hand in her own thin, shaking one. “But really, you should go to bed.”

I ignored her objections, and we made our way down the stairs and through another hall that ended in a bookcase.

“Lady- there’s no one here. We should go back,” Mercy said.

“I was sure it came from here.” I checked the two side doors, but they opened to a broom closet and a linen closet. I was about to turn back as Mercy had suggested when the scream rang out again- bright and clear. It seemed to come from behind the bookcase.

I let go of Mercy’s hand and examined the bookcase. The books were smooth and clean- their spines perfectly uncreased.

“Please Lady, I’m scared.”

“Don’t be frightened. I think the sound is coming from behind the bookcase.”

The bookcase looked sturdy, and I knew I would need to lessen the weight to move it. I reached out and began to remove books.

One of the books seemed to catch on something, and then there was a loud click. The bookcase swung open, revealing a hidden passage.

A loud chime sounded in the hallway.

“Lord Frey gave me clear orders; no one is to go into the basement. Not even you may pass, Lady Frey.”

I turned to face Mercy. Her frightened look was gone, replaced by fierce determination.

“Can’t you hear the screaming? Even now, it continues. Damn Lord Frey’s orders.”

Mercy put the candle on a nearby stand and pulled the cap from her head. Long, raven waves of hair tumbled down over her shoulders, contrasting handsomely with her sparkling blue eyes.

“You are a Lady,” she said, “so you have no idea what it feels like to be a servant. You have no idea what it’s like to be powerless under the disgusting men who call themselves your ma”sters. Lord Frey is the only one who ever kept a respectful distance.”

“He may be the one who is screaming.”

“He may be, but his orders still stand. I will respect him as he has respected me.”

Mercy circled around and blocked my path, holding her hands in front of her with cat-like grace.

“He might not have foreseen-”

“He would have,” Mercy said. “He’s wiser than you know.”

The chime rang out again, louder than before.

I moved toward the door, but Mercy was faster than me. Her feet hardly seemed to shift as she closed the distance between us. Before I knew it, I was on the floor, and Mercy had me expertly pinned.

She applied pressure on my arm, and I felt a sharp pain.

“That’s enough, Mercy. You can let her up.”

“She’s determined, Lord Frey. I had no choice.”

“Yes- I can well imagine. Still, she’s found my sanctuary. The damage has already been done.”

Mercy let go of my arm, and I stood slowly, rubbing the sore spot.

“You have surprising talent, Mercy,” I said, not certain if I should feel frightened, angry, or simply impressed.

Mercy bowed in acknowledgement. “I owe my training as a maid to Miss Chastity, of course.”

“Leave us, Mercy. I would speak to my bride alone.”

“Yes, Lord Frey.”

I looked up at Hope as Mercy’s steps echoed in retreat down the hall. His shirt was rumpled, and his hair hung in limp ropes over his haggard face.

“You once accused me of being artful and scheming, Grace. I think it’s time we both do away with masks, and reveal our true faces.”

 

This week’s clue:

The eye sees good judgement where the blood does not,

the mind to thrive, and the flesh to rot. 

The Coven, Part XIII

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