The Coven, Part XIV

After Mr. Filius left, I studied the card for a moment, and then put it away in my purse. It was a puzzle, I knew, and given Mr. Filius’s intelligence and his intimate knowledge of Celeste’s mother, one that was imperative I solve.

Mr. Filius had given me a clue, however, which led me to believe he knew more about astronomy, and about the star Lystra’s behavior, than he was letting on. My first step to solving the puzzle he’d given me was to discover why Lystra behaved in such an odd manner.

Celeste had finished reading her chapter when I returned, and she stayed attentive during arithmetic, so as a reward, I allowed her to spend the last half of her music lesson dancing. While she was practicing the steps to the allemande, Hope entered the drawing room and fell into step with her.

“I’m so glad that  I decided to come to you early,” Hope said after the dance was done. “I had come to ask if I could join you for tea, and then I heard Grace playing our song.”

Celeste curtseyed primly. “Thank you for the dance.”

Hope bowed low to her, and then turned to me with a significant look. “I hope that you will join us for our afternoon ride, as well.”

I closed the clavichord and put away my music, not trusting myself to answer right away. I felt the same way I’d felt on the day of our betrothal; I didn’t know how to speak to him, or what he expected of me. When I looked up at Hope, however, I saw an uncharacteristically sheepish smile on his face. His eyes flickered from me to Celeste and then back again, as though he were also unsure.

“Alright,” I said. “I accept.”

 

#

 

Thankfully, Celeste seemed more than happy to fill the awkward silences at tea, and afterward Hope was too busy supervising the stable master and procuring a mare for me to ride to say anything.

Once saddled and ready, our small party made our way down the winding path that led into the valley. After riding through the valley alongside the brook for a time, we looped around and headed back toward Bluebell Hill.

I reined in my horse a bit, and Hope turned back to me with a questioning glance.

“I thought we might ride up to the cottage,” Hope said. “Is that alright?”

“Yes, that’s alright.”

Hope smiled a little wider, and then turned his horse back toward the hill.

A breeze arose as we ascended the hill, rustling the bluebells whose scent was like cool dew on a fall morning. I closed my eyes and breathed it in, letting the steady rhythm of the horses’ hooves lull me into a peace that supplemented my courage.

Near the crest of the hill, I heard the familiar sound of bells and the bleating of sheep.

“Verity!” Celeste called as she rode up the hill.

The shepherdess called back in her melodic voice, waving to Celeste with one hand while holding a little lamb in the other.

“The new Lamb’s been born,” the shepherdess said to Celeste in a thick country brogue. “Wanna see?”

At that moment the shepherdess seemed to notice Hope and me riding behind, and her already ruddy face turned a brighter red. She dropped into a deep curtsey, struggling to keep a hold of the lamb at the same time.

“Eh! Mi’lady! Mi’lord! Pardon- I din’na know ye’d come.”

“No matter, Verity,” Hope said heartily. “We’re glad to see you’re well. Mind your lamb.”

“Thank ye, Mi’lord,” Verity said, taking the lamb with both hands as she curtseyed again.

Celeste looked back to Hope. “Oh! Uncle Hope, may I see the little lamb?”

“Yes- hitch your pony first. Lady Frey and I are going into the cottage, so be sure to stay nearby.”

“I will. Thank you,” Celeste called.

Hope and I hitched our horses to the tree near Celeste’s pony, and then Hope unlocked the cottage door.

“It’s up to you whether you come inside,” Hope said. “Today, I swear, there are no threats. You will not be harmed.”

I went inside.

Hope flung open the muslin curtains, and motes of dust danced madly in the afternoon sun. Outside, I could see Celeste and Verity seated on the ground, petting the lamb who stood between them.

I sat on a wicker stool near the window, and Hope sat on a stool across from me. He fidgeted restlessly for a moment, and then stood and began to pace.

“I don’t know quite how to begin- with an apology, or with a compliment. I mean both of them sincerely, so you needn’t suspect me of my usual flattery.”

“Either will do. I was expecting neither,” I said.

Hope sat across from me again, though he still fidgeted with his riding gloves, placing them on the wicker table, smoothing them out, and picking them up again. In that moment, I understood in words what had been dawning on me for a time- that Hope’s artful manners did not conceal danger, but vulnerability.

“Well, perhaps the compliment would be best. You impressed me last night, Grace. I never thought that you would act so boldly. I had thought you were a cunning girl, but not brave. The fact that you value your freedom so highly- enough to sacrifice everything to gain- was humbling.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but I must confess that in the light of day, I wonder if taking the blood oath was an act of courage or foolishness.”

“Let me assure you that I don’t mean to put you in danger. I only wish to protect my family and my friends from the inquisition. I’ve been thinking about your situation since last night, and I see now that you father only made you a pawn in his game.”

Hope paused and took a deep breath before he continued. “This brings me to my apology. I behaved abominably, last night. I should never have threatened or intimidated you. Even if my reasons were honorable, my methods were not. When you came to Rowan Heights, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be a tyrannical husband. Last night, fear corrupted me.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Hope held up his hand.

“Please, let me continue. I know that you believe my witchcraft has corrupted me, but one of my reasons for bringing you here was to convince you otherwise. “

I couldn’t suppress an ironic smile. “You must understand why I would feel this way.”

“I understand, Grace. You’ve been raised in the faith. Once I tell you my story, though, you may feel differently.”

“I will listen,” I promised.

“I have reasons to hate the Gods and the church, and I have reasons for trying to protect my family from their influence. Last night, when you found me, I was more acutely aware of the Gods’ cruelty than usual, having had another nightmare about it.

“I try to stay awake most nights to avoid the nightmares. Captain Goode makes a potion that can keep me from sleeping.”

“I remember- he gave you a vial on my first day at Rowan Heights.”

Hope nodded. “The potion still isn’t perfect. I must sleep at least once a fortnight,  or I become disoriented. One time, I tried to stay awake for a full month, and experienced hallucinations even more terrifying than the nightmares I was trying to escape.

“What is it that frightens you so?”

“Hell.”

Hope put his gloves away and began to wring his hands, looking down at them with the same expression I’d seen on the day I found him drunk.

Without thinking, I moved to sit beside him and took his hand.

“You’re helping me again,” Hope said. “I can’t imagine why.”

“There doesn’t need to be a reason. Tell me about your dreams.”

“Every time I fall asleep, it’s as though I descend into hell- over and over again. My skin, my flesh, even my bones feel as though they are on fire, and I can see my loved ones- everyone who has died- suffering the most horrible torment. Mother, Father, and even dear Prudence- everyone.

“Don’t pity me,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be this bad, but I did choose to accept the curse. It was the price I paid for my powers- we were all cursed upon our initiation into the coven.

“Many of the curses seem to be connected to the witch’s power, in a odd way. For example, Chastity has been gifted with tremendous physical strength, but she is also in constant pain.”

“If the price for your power was so high, then why did you join the coven?”

“I joined the coven so I could fight the church.” Hope pulled his hand away from mine, curling his fingers into a fist. “I was only 16 when I joined, but I knew I was making the right decision. The church has oppressed its people for generations, and my family has been sorely persecuted by them.”

“Persecuted? How so?”

“My family has been denied salvation by the church. We must still serve, of course- they even require that we send a son to become a monk once each generation. Even so, none of us can receive the sacraments, our prayers are not answered, and all of us are bound for hell.”

My blood seemed to turn to ice in my veins. The expression of hatred on Hope’s face was enough to convince me that his words were true, or-at least- that he believed them.

“And yet-” I said slowly, “the church requires that sons be produced in each generation to serve the monastery- requires that your line continue.”

“Hell must be populated,” Hope said with a dark chuckle. “My father was lucky enough to produce twin boys right away- one boy to continue the line as required, and one boy to join the monastery to which we are tied. I was stupid enough to have an illegitimate daughter, who is now needlessly condemned.”

I looked out the window at the happy child outside, who danced among the bluebells.

“Grace- it’s not just for my own family that I fight. I fight a cruel order that marries women against their will, and that gives men the right to beat their wives and children. I fight an order where the poor are forced to live in ignorance and squalor, and the rich are free to buy slaves from their number.

“The world’s order is not nearly as beautiful as the order of the heavens you admire. It’s dark, cruel, and corrupt.”

“I would be lying if I said I’d never had similar thoughts,” I said. “But what can we do against the power of the entire church, and against the Gods themselves?”

“That’s a rather bleak way to look at the world,” Hope said. “No wonder you seemed so unhappy when we met.”

“My only consolation,” I continued, “was to look at the heavens, and believe I might go there one day.”

“You’ve just discovered the church’s error. When they condemned my family, they gave us nothing to lose.”

“Why was your family condemned?”

“Centuries ago, during the War of the Ancients, my family refused to fight. My ancestors had friends among the Ancients, and would not condone the slaughter of the entire race.”

I looked down at my hands. I could see a thin line of blood, which had seeped through the bandage, and the memory of my oath almost made me smile in satisfaction. After all, how could I accept salvation, knowing that people existed who would never attain it?

“Grace? Please speak. I must know; would you still condemn me?”

“It’s not my place to condemn anyone. After all, I sold my own soul for freedom without a second thought. Your reasons for doing the same were far nobler.”

I could hear Celeste laughing outside. She and the shepherdess were running together through the bluebells with an unbridled joy that only childhood can bestow- the lamb gamboling behind them.

“The Goode family is similarly condemned,” Hope said, “and for the same reason. They were accused of cowardice during the War of the Ancients, and so one male of each generation must serve in the military.

“Our families have always been close, even though the Goode family was not so fortunate to keep their title and land when they were condemned. Still, even though a marriage between our families would have strengthened our cause, Prudence and I were selfish to think we could force the church’s hand. We were selfish to bring a child into the world.”

“If what you say is true, I honestly wish you are able to free Celeste of this condemnation.”

“I thought you might say so,” Hope said. He stood up and offered me his hand.

“If I’m right in believing that I’ve earned your trust, there is something I’d like to show you.”

I stood. “I trust that you’re being honest, and I feel sympathy for your situation- I really do- but the story itself is so fantastic that I must still have some doubt. I’m willing to see any evidence you can show me.”

Hope nodded and led me to the cellar door, turning lock after lock until the door finally swung open. Under the door there was a ladder that descended into a dark tunnel.

“There’s no need for a lantern- you’ll see once we’re inside.”

“How far does it go?”

“Not far- not even half a furlong. Celeste will be safe here, until we return. She often plays on the hill alone, or with Verity.”

“Should we allow her to play on this hill?”

“She’s safer here than anywhere else on my estate. There are invisible protections around this hill- from the valley to the forest on the far side- and they protect against malevolent forces that are magical or mundane.”

I knew that Hope would never willfully put Celeste in danger. The sooner I could see the evidence, I thought, the sooner I could verify his words.

I climbed the ladder after him, grateful that I was dressed in a simple riding frock less cumbersome than my usual wide pannier. The door fell shut over my head as I descended, and it became so dark that when my boots hit the ground it was unexpected. I managed to keep myself from stumbling, and Hope took my hand to help me along.

“It will take some time for the light to appear,” he said. “There!”

In an instant, the hallway flooded with white light.

I looked around, but there was no torch or lantern. Even the best lamp could never cast a light so pure, I thought. Straight above my head, I could see a line of baubles dangling from the ceiling, and they shone so brightly that they hurt my eyes to look at directly.

“Oh, Hope! How…”

“This tunnel was built by the demons centuries ago,” Hope said. “The lights are fueled by their power.”

“Does- does that mean that the demons are here?”

“No- their power flows from a portal on the other side of the hill, and the demons themselves stay in their realm. Don’t be afraid. Even if the demons did appear, they would not hurt you while you are under my protection.”

I nodded, but I did not let go of Hope’s hand as we made our way down the tunnel.

“I must be going mad- or else the world has gone mad,” I said. “I never would have imagined that I could fall so far in just a few days.”

“You haven’t fallen as far as you imagine,” Hope said. “You have agreed to keep my secrets, and you have chosen to hear my case, but your hands are clean. You are still free from sin. I, on the other hand…”

Hope fell silent.

The lights flickered then, and I screamed.

“Don’t be afraid,” Hope repeated. “They sometimes flicker, but they never go out- not until I’m done with them.”

“I wasn’t afraid of the darkness.”

“Grace, even if a demon decided to break the covenant I’ve formed with them by attacking you, there’s nothing they could do. You are impervious to their arts.”

“You mean, just as I am immune to your magic?”

“It’s the same magic- my powers come from the demons,” Hope said. “Not only are you impervious to every power my coven possesses, but you were able to keep my curse at bay just by holding my hand. Your presence banished my nightmares for an entire night.

“After I told the others what had happened, Lady Willoughby- yes, she’s in the coven too- decided to test her own curse. You see, her curse is an inability to tell a falsehood.”

“So that’s why she was so bothersome the day of the star-party,” I said. “She was with me almost constantly, telling me the most ridiculous stories.”

“Yes- such as the angels drawing lines on the sky with pencil; I remember!” Hope laughed so loudly that it echoed through the tunnel.

“I fail to see how the inability to lie is a curse, though. To lie is a sin.”

“Spend some time at court, and you will understand.”

“Do you believe I could help the others?”

“You might grant us a reprieve from our curses.”

Hope slowed, and I looked ahead to see a large, silver door. He touched it, and the door slid open.

“Here we are. I don’t believe I need to remind you that everything you see here must remain a secret.”

“Yes- my life depends on it.”

Hope graced me with a small, sad smile, and then led me inside.

It was a small, clean room, all white and silver, but with few architectural embellishments or decorations. There was a screen on the far wall where colored patterns of light danced as though drawn by an invisible painter.

“Oh! How beautiful!” I said, walking toward the screen.

“Don’t touch it, please,” Hope said. “It’s a magic mirror that we use to contact the demons in their realm. It can also be used to transmit information, letters, do calculations- all manner of miraculous things. However, your power might damage its magic.”

I clasped my hands behind my back.

Hope walked to the other side of the room and opened a silver chest, which had a sigil embossed on the lid- the same sigil Hope had drawn on our contract the night before.

“Here it is. This is my family’s writ of condemnation- you will note the High Priest’s seal at the bottom. We’ve been examining it for possible loopholes.”

Hope handed it to me, his lips pressed together in an anxious grimace.

I read the document while Hope watched. The writ confirmed Hope’s story, and the High Priests’s seal appeared just under the signature of High Priest Domitian I. The parchment, however, seemed new, and the ink was fresh.

“This can’t have been written centuries ago.”

“Then it must be a fake,” Hope said. “Tear it up, crumple it- try to destroy it however you can.”

I looked up at Hope, but he maintained his serious expression, and even nodded encouragingly, so I made my attempt.

I tore at the parchment, but it held together fast. I crumpled the parchment, but it unrolled as smooth and perfect as ever. I was almost frustrated enough to use my teeth, when Hope laughed.

“I suppose I was overly optimistic to think it might burst into flames as soon as you touched it. This is the power of the High Priest’s seal. The writ will remain binding forever- it will never fade, it cannot be destroyed, and despite centuries of effort, my family has found no way to break its power.”

“And you’d hoped that I would be able to?”

Hope shrugged. “You’re able to resist magic, so I thought it would be worth a try. I suppose what you said yesterday was true enough, however. You are still just flesh and blood.”

Hope took the writ back from me, and placed it back the chest. Then he led me out of the room, and back through the tunnel. As soon as we were through, and I stepped onto the ladder to ascend into the cottage, the tunnel went black behind us.

The Coven, Part XV

 

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