Miss Taris came to my room at a quarter to six.
She was properly dressed in a blue silk gown. Her face was clean, her hair turned up modestly, and her eyes were clear behind her shining spectacles.
“I’m glad to see you’ve recovered so quickly,” I said.
“I’m very well, thank you,” she said. “I’m well enough to travel. Brother Lux has sent me to fetch you- he’s awaiting us at the carriage.”
“No one told us that you would be coming, Miss Taris,” Mercy said.
Miss Taris smiled. “I’ve just spoken with my father, and I was able to make him understand my feelings. He agreed to release me from my betrothal, and I am going to del Sol to contemplate taking orders.”
“This is a sudden development. I’m glad you were finally able to persuade your father to release you.”
Miss Taris only smiled and nodded in reply.
“Miss Taris is not going to del Sol to take orders,” Mercy said. “She’s going to del Sol to spy on us for Father Pius.”
“Father Pius is my trusted friend and advisor. I will inform him of everything that happens at del Sol, of course.”
Mercy met Miss Taris’s triumphant gaze, and then reached down, hoisting Hope’s trunk with one arm onto her shoulder.
Miss Taris took a step back in surprise, staring at the heavy trunk, which was effortlessly supported by Mercy’s slight frame.
“Well, I suppose I had better be careful around someone as powerful as you.”
I stepped between Mercy and Miss Taris before the tension could build any further. “Come- the carriage is waiting, and the sun will set, soon.”
“Very good,” Mercy whispered to me as we followed Miss Taris. “She is powerful, but as long as you refuse to show the feelings she forces on you, she will doubt herself. If she tries to make us feel fear again, look the fear in the face.”
I wished I really were strong enough to fight the Prince’s army, as I had said to Hope. If I were, Mercy and I could defeat the Inquisitors and the guards, and then and storm the dungeons, freeing everyone inside. But even if I were physically strong enough to fight an army, Father Pius would still be able to destroy me. Perhaps the Coven together had enough magical strength to fight Father Pius, but he had divided and conquered them all.
All I could do now was force my steps toward the carriage that would take me away from Hope.
“Celeste is already on her way to del Sol, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said when I met him at the carriage door. “I’ve sent the Abbess word that you are both coming, and she welcomes your arrival.”
“That is impossible- how could you have sent a letter and received a response so quickly?”
Brother Lux didn’t reply. Instead, he helped Miss Taris into the carriage while Mercy climbed onto the box. Brother Lux turned back to me and offered his hand, but I waved away his help and climbed into the carriage on my own.
“The seats have been warmed, but it is a very cold evening,” Brother Lux said. “Here, Lady Frey. Take this blanket.”
I turned away from him without a word. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek, and I dare not look back at him so he might see it.
“Brother Lux is going out of his way to be kind to you,” Miss Taris said.
I wiped my face. “Miss Taris, I don’t expect you to understand how I feel, and for your sake I hope you never understand.”
The carriage pulled away from the palace, and though we traveled the same road, the splendor that had greeted me on the way to St. Blanc was gone. The fairy trees that arched over the avenue were bare, their branches reaching out like skeletal fingers. The pond was covered in a thin layer of frost, and the swans had all flown away for the winter. All of the real flowers were dead.
The sun lingered just below the cloudline and over the horizon as we drove over the wide, open park, but by the time we reached the public road the sun had set, leaving only a faint twilight. The moon and stars mostly all veiled by clouds, and soon I was staring out at a sea of darkness.
I could hear Miss Taris and Brother Lux breathing softly as they slept behind me, but I could not rest. Hope’s bruised and battered face was always on my mind, and when I did not actively try to re-direct my thoughts, my head was filled with the gruesome descriptions I’d once read as a young girl of inquisition torture machines.
We reached the crossroad village well past midnight. No adventure awaited me in the village like it had the last time I’d stayed. We had a sparse repast in the common room, and then went upstairs to rest for a few hours.
Mercy and I watched the Inn door all night. She was convinced that someone in the village might know who I was, and she didn’t trust Brother Lux to protect us. It didn’t take much persuasion for me to keep watch with her.
Fatigue from my sleepless night caught up with me the next day, but I tried to force my sluggish mind to stay awake and review everything I knew about Father Pius and his plans. At times I would succumb to the temptation to close my eyes, and I would fall into a fitful sleep. I would dream up plans to defeat Father Pius- each plan more impossible than the last.
We stayed the next night in a cottage just off the road, where I stayed up and kept watch with Mercy again. Then it was another day’s ride before the spire of the Cathedral del Sol appeared over the horizon.
We’d been following a crooked road that wound back and forth through the lowlands. The road grew dustier and whiter, and as it did the sun sunk lower in the sky.
When the sun touched down on the western horizon, del Sol’s spire reflected the red light so fiercely it seemed to catch fire and I had to shield my eyes as we approached. The road continued to zigzag, so that the reflection sometimes flared across the right carriage window, and sometimes the left.
The sun set, and though the Spire still shone, it faded until I could look at it directly. It was almost perfectly straight, unembellished, and taller than any spire I’d ever seen- taller even than the spire on the great cathedral in town. It looked silver in the fading light, glinting as though it were made of metal.
The path before us was still crooked, but we we no longer sloping downward. Now we were winding through patches of grass that waved in the cold, salt-scented air. We rolled on and on, but the spire didn’t seem to draw nearer.
“There’s nowhere nearby to stop,” Brother Lux said, yawning as he roused himself, “but the cathedral is only a couple of hours away.”
After a few more minutes the spire grew dark, and the stars came out one by one in the cold, clear sky. I tried to rouse my tired mind and shake away the mad dreams I’d been indulging. I would soon be with Celeste, and she would need to be told what had happened calmly and gently. I would need to be in a state to make her feel safe.
I was considering what I would say to her when the carriage jerked to a halt.
I opened to carriage window and leaned out into the frigid wind see what had happened. The dark outline of the cathedral spire still stood in the distance, blotting out the stars. Just few feet ahead of us,however, there were six men in dark cloaks blocking the road.
Brother Lux opened his door and exited the carriage. “Good evening, travelers.”
One of the cloaked men stepped forward. “Good evening, Friar. We’ve come to relieve you of your burden.”
A few of the men laughed in reply, but the man who had spoken bowed cordially.
“We provide a public service, you see,” he said in a voice so low it came out almost like a hiss. “It’s a shame for so many pretty ladies to be locked away in that nunnery, so if you have any with you we will gladly take them.”
“We will gladly take any gold you have, as well,” a deep voiced brute barked from behind him.
“For heaven’s sake,” Mercy said, drawing her quarterstaff from behind the box. “If you’re bandits, just say so.”
Mercy jumped down from the box, quarterstaff spinning, and struck two blows before her feet hit the earth.
Two men fell and the other four rushed at Mercy, the largest one swinging an axe and the leader bearing a staff. Mercy dodged their blows but fell back against the force of their advance. The coachman took a flintlock from under the box and aimed it at the largest man, but then cursed loudly as the weapon jammed. He flung it aside and jumped down to flee.
Two men broke away from the fight with Mercy to pursue the coachman, but stopped when they saw Miss Taris and I through the coach window. One of the men wrenched the door open and grabbed Miss Taris, and this action- happening inches from where I sat- seemed to rouse me from my shock. I drew back my fist and hit Mercy’s attacker in the Jaw.
My hand shook with fear, and my strike had been weak. The man stumbled back out of the carriage, however, more from surprise than pain. I took the opportunity to jump down from the carriage, and then kicked the second man in the stomach as he reached for me.
This time my blow landed hard, and the second man stumbled back, clutching his stomach in pain. Blood pounded in my ears, my palms were starting to sweat despite the cold, but I followed up with a second blow without thinking.
In the heat of the moment, however, I’d forgotten about the first man, who grabbed me from behind. The man I’d just kicked took a wheezing breath and then rallied. I started to slip down out of the first man’s grasp, but I froze when I saw a flash of silver in the moonlight. The second man drew a dagger and pointed it toward my face.
“Not so feisty now, are you, girl?”
Before I could think of my next move, the man dropped his dagger and fell senseless to the ground. Mercy had appeared and hit him from behind with her quarterstaff. I sent my elbow into the first man’s stomach, and as I slipped down out of his grasp, Mercy hit him in the head with her quarterstaff, too.
“They are witches,” he groaned, clutching at his head as he ran away down the road.
“Really? Just because we can fight, we’re witches?” Mercy shook her head, turned to me, and helped me to my feet.
“Congratulations. You’ve survived your first battle.”
“That was a battle?” I said.
“It’s not as glorious as the stories, is it? A battle is really just an exaggerated brawl.”
I turned back to Miss Taris. “Are you alright?”
“I- I’m fine,” she said, though her face was flushed. “I can’t-”
“The attackers have fled,” Brother Lux said, returning with the discarded flintlock in his hand, “except for the ones you have rendered unconscious- and another over here, I see. We should leave before they awaken.”
“What about the coachman?” I asked.
“I can drive,” Mercy said.
“We should try to find him,” I argued. “He is not a young man, and the bandits might catch him.”
“Don’t worry. I saw him go through the bushes- there. We will catch up to him when we go around the next bend,” Mercy said.
“Are you certain? Brother Lux asked.
“Certain enough- I’m not going out of my way for a coward.”
“Drive, then,” Brother Lux, said. He climbed back into the carriage and I followed. Mercy climbed back onto the box, and the carriage moved forward again.
“Miss Taris, are you well? You look faint.” Brother Lux put his hand to Miss Taris’s forehead.
“That man- he was disgusting,” she said, and then blanched at the carriage’s sudden movement. “When he put his hands on me, I could feel what he wanted.”
“It’s alright, Miss Taris,” Brother Lux said. He took her trembling hands and rubbed them for warmth. “You are safe now.”
“No- they’re angry now,” Miss Taris said. “I should have used my powers to influence their feelings, but I froze. I should have fought back.”
“There’s nothing you could have done,” Brother Lux said.
“But Mercy fought back. Even Lady Frey fought back.” Miss Taris pulled away from Brother Lux and turned to me. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“Mercy has been teaching me,” I said. “I’m not very skilled, yet, but-”
The carriage lurched to a stop and, as Mercy had predicted, the coachman darted out from the bushes and jumped back onto the box. I could hear a low rumble of hooves in the distance.
“They’re angry- they’re coming back,” Miss Taris cried.
“They had friends nearby,” Mercy called from the box. “Hold on.”
The carriage lurched forward again, and I opened the carriage window to look back. I couldn’t see the horses yet, but I could see the road smoking behind us from the pounding hooves.
After the next bend, the road straightened, and the carriage gained speed as we headed straight for the cathedral. I looked back again, and I could see the horses and riders outlined in crimson moonlight. They were quickly gaining on us.
“Brother Lux- do you still have the pistol?” I asked.
He fumbled in his cloak. “I have it, but I’m afraid I can’t use it.”
“Please try,” I said.
He raised the weapon toward the window, but his hands trembled violently.
“Here- I will try,” I said.
Brother Lux held out the weapon, but then drew it back hesitantly.
“Please, trust her,” Miss Taris pleaded. “We are all in danger.”
Brother Lux handed me the weapon.
I leaned out the window and saw the riders hot on our heels. I had no time to be afraid- I took a deep breath and held the gun the way I’d seen my father hold one when he shot. I cocked the gun and raised it, bracing my shooting hand with the other and aiming the weapon toward the head rider.
As soon as I squeezed the trigger, both the carriage and the riders behind us clattered to a halt. The motion jostled my arm, and the shot rang out into the grasses beside the road.
An eerie silence fell over everything. Even the horses quieted, and the breeze stilled. I looked forward and saw three robed figures standing on the road ahead. Despite the crimson moonlight, their robes shone a spotless white and their faces were shrouded in white veils.
The middle figure stepped forward, clutching a staff in their right hand. The figure raised the staff, and Miss Taris and Brother Lux both gasped in unison. The horses behind us reared back and, as though they’d been spooked by a bolt of lightning, turned and galloped away.
The three robed figures walked forward, approaching the carriage. The figure with the staff reached out and settled the frightened horses, and then came to the carriage door.
Unsure of what else to do, I opened the door.
The veiled figure placed their staff against the carriage door and then threw back their veil, revealing a familiar, gentle face crowned with golden hair.
Abbess Joy came closer, and then reached out and took me into her arms.
“You’re safe now,” she said. “Welcome to del Sol.”