The Coven, Part XXXXIII

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Abbess Joy asked me for the third time.

I had first gone to the dormitory to see Celeste to bed. After the stories, songs, hugs, and promises I would return the next day, Celeste fell asleep. Then I’d gone to my own cell, where my trunk had already been stowed, to prepare for my journey.

Mercy, Abbess Joy, and even Sister Jubilee had followed me, and after I’d refused to tell them where Brother Lux and I were going, they’d crowded into my already cramped cell to try to dissuade me.

“I’m not sure about this, but I must act,” I said to Abbess Joy. I knelt beside the trunk, opened it, and started sifting through clothes.

“I have a better question,” Mercy said. “Have you gone mad?”

“Yes- I possibly have.” I removed one of Hope’s shirts and a woolen waistcoat.

“Why would you go with the man who imprisoned your husband on some mysterious adventure?”

“It may be a fool’s errand, but it may be my husband’s only salvation,” I said. “Given his current chances, this is a move I must make.”

“I can’t protect you if you leave del Sol,” Abbess Joy said quietly. “My magic is bound to this place. If I go into the world without the Gods’ blessings, I am powerless.”

I paused, clutching a pair of breeches. “Thank you, Abbess, but please don’t worry about me. Brother Lux and I are taking a back-road from the cathedral, in the opposite direction from where we met the bandits. As for Brother Lux- if he’d wanted to harm me personally, he’s already had ample opportunity to do so. We will return as soon as we can.”

“I think you should go, Lady Frey.”

Abbess Joy, Mercy and I turned to Sister Jubilee in surprise. I’d begun to see Sister Jubilee as an extension of Abbess Joy, and until now Sister Jubilee had followed her mistress in silence. But when Sister Jubilee spoke, it was in a warm, confident voice almost as surprising as the words themselves.

“You promised Celeste that you would fight to free Lord Frey. I’m glad those weren’t just pretty words.”

“I fail to see how this is any of your concern,” Mercy spat. Then she turned back to me. “Lady Frey, we should discuss this alone.”

“I don’t have time, Mercy. We can talk when I return.”

“There’s no point in talking after you return. At least let me go with you. I promised Lord Frey that I would protect you.”

“Stay here to fulfill your promise. Protect Celeste for him.”

Mercy groaned and left the room as I continued to dress. In a moment, she returned with her quarterstaff, which she thrust into my hands.

“At least take a weapon.”

“I don’t know how to use it,” I protested.

Mercy adjusted my hands, demonstrating the proper grip. “It’s simple-  strike your enemy with it. Aim for the stomach, head, or knees.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“No- don’t thank me. I’d rather you didn’t go on any foolish adventures without at least a month’s worth of training- or a year at the rate you’ve been progressing.”

Abbess Joy stepped forward. “Celeste is safe here- I promise. Please reconsider taking Mercy with you.”

I sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but after everything that’s happened, it’s difficult to leave her again.”

Abbess Joy placed her hands over mine. “May the Gods bless you, Lady Frey. Please return unharmed.”

“I will,” I promised.

 

 

#

 

 

I found Brother Lux outside, readying a small, two-person chaise.

“Lady Frey, I hope you are ready to-” he turned and stopped speaking as soon as he saw me.

I was wearing Hope’s clothes- shirt, waistcoat, and breeches, with a wool greatcoat over them. The shirtsleeves had to be rolled back, and the breeches cuffed, but otherwise they fit well enough. I’d tied my hair back with a black ribbon in the dragoon style, completing the effect.

“I trust we won’t meet the bandits again, but they seemed most interested in kidnapping ladies. Hopefully, in the darkness, this will disguise me well enough.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then I will be able to fight more easily than I would in crinolines and stays.”

We climbed into the chaise, and Brother Lux took the reins.

“I thought a small horsecart would attract less attention than a coach-and-four,” Brother Lux explained. “Plus, I dare not bring the coachman along. It will be very cold, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” I said. “My husband’s coat is very warm.”

We set forth down the pink, moonlit road together. We rode in silence for a time, and then I spoke.

“I’m sorry to ask questions of such a personal nature,” I ventured, “but I am curious about the nature of your relationship with Father Pius.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. How long have you been…”

“For a very long time,” Brother Lux said, “though not long enough. I hope we may have an eternity together.”

“You must share a very strong bond.”

“Our bond is unbreakable,” Brother Lux said. “We are united in our purpose. If you are looking for his weakness, you will not find it in me.”

“If that’s so, then you must know that he hates me, and why,” I said.

The road dipped down slightly, and the path twisted until we came upon a lush, marshy riverbank, where water glittered in the faint moonlight among the shadows of heavy trees. Soon afterward, we turned down a crossroad that ran parallel to the river.

Brother Lux sighed, and then spoke. “Pius doesn’t hate you personally, Lady Frey.”

“He does hate the Ancients,” I said, “and that is enough to affect his feelings toward me.”

“Yes,” Brother Lux admitted. “When did you discover your ancestry?”

“My father told me just before he left court,” I said.

“No wonder you were so shaken that night. It must have come as a great shock.”

“When did you and Father Pius find out?” I asked.

The horses hooves clattered as road grew harder and sloped sharply upward. Brother Lux and I began our ascent into the hill country.

“This river leads us into the valley,” Brother Lux explained. ‘To answer your question- Pius  suspected your Ancient blood when we learned of your magical resistance. After he was coronated, he gained access to the breeding records and was able to confirm his suspicions.I didn’t believe him until he showed me your mother’s record. I should have- he has seen much of the world and its secrets.

“Even so, I found it difficult to believe that you don’t have a soul. I saw fear in your eyes the night you discovered us at the full moon. I heard you crying as I lead you back to the manor, though you’d tried to hide your tears and I’d pretended not to hear. I saw you blush at my brother’s advances, and I watched as the two of you fell in love. Father Pius calls all of this an imitation of life.”

“I saw my mother’s contract,” I said. “I tested the High Priest’s seal, and it was genuine. Plus, as Father Pius guessed, my magical resistance is evidence of my ancestry. Perhaps feelings can exist without the presence of a soul, or perhaps I have a soul, but it is different than yours. How can I explain any of it when I don’t even know what a soul really is, or what it does?”

“You love my brother enough to put yourself at risk; that is not an imitation.”

“I have no point of comparison. I know I feel love, but I can’t feel how you experience the same emotion. I only know that if the pain I feel now is only an imitation, then I couldn’t survive the agony of true pain.”

As I spoke, my fear and my longing for Hope flared to life again- like I’d been prodding an open wound. I fell silent and took a deep breath to steady myself.

The silence stretched on and on as we rode. Marshes gave way to rough grasses, and then the shadows of sharp stones all along the riverbank. Hills rose over the horizon before us.

The red moon was starting to dip a little lower in the sky. I gazed at it, tracing every well-known detail with my eyes, and my mind filled in the features I’d found with my telescope- light-colored mountainous regions near the white streaks known as chastity’s tears, and a dark, heart-shaped area toward the south. I could see the shadow of the moon’s full disk past the gibbous curve of light. The red moon truly was another world.

I should have studied the red moon more while I had my telescope, I thought. After all, it was a world closely tied to magic, and it was the closest world to my earth- a world that Mr. Filius had once called Terra. The Coven’s abilities were tied to the moon’s phases, and even the stolen book had hinted that the moon was connected to magic.

If the red moon really is a world like my own, I wondered, then what sort of creatures populate it? Is it populated by the demons themselves?

It was a fleeting thought- silly, even- but as soon as it crossed my mind, something clicked into place like the missing piece of a puzzle. I remembered a question I’d asked myself in Father Pius’s office- why had Father Pius really destroyed my treatise?

To hide the truth that Terra is one world among others.

Father Pius was the High Priest of a coven, and possibly the most powerful witch in the world. I realized that he must hold magic secrets unknown to the others, such as why the red moon controls magic, and where the demons they contract with dwell. If the new moon was a point of weakness, he might wish to hide it, and if he had contracted with a demon, he must be bound to protect its home.

My heart started to pound, and I looked away from the red moon to the dark scenery around me. My idea was mad, but it fit all of my evidence so well that I could not dismiss it. If it was true, it was the most dangerous secret I’d ever uncovered.

I turned my face away from Brother Lux, afraid he might see the light of discovery in my eyes.

 

 

#

 

 

When we reached the base of bluebell hill, Brother Lux stopped and tied the horse to a nearby tree. Then we ascended the hill on foot.

There were no bluebells growing on the hill, now. The slope was covered by a thin layer of frost, which glistened like fresh blood in the moonlight. The frost was so slick that I was obliged to brace myself with Mercy’s quarterstaff as I climbed.  

When we reached the crest of the hill, Brother Lux led me down a shadowed path underneath the eaves of the cottage- the same path I’d walked the night I’d discovered the coven. He motioned for me to wait for him under the eaves as he went forward to unlock the door alone. Then he gestured for me to follow him inside, and I moved under the shadow of the eaves until I reached the door.

I went inside, shut the cottage door, and placed Mercy’s staff against the wall while Brother Lux rolled back a braided rug from over the cellar door. Then he took a key ring from his pocket and undid all of the locks along the door’s edge.

“As you can see,” Brother Lux said, opening the cellar door and gesturing to the door’s underside, “my brother has covered the wood in magic sigils. I’ve tried to remove them, but they don’t seem to be written in ordinary ink. While they remain, there’s no way into the tunnel.”

I looked carefully at the door’s underside, but even in the sparse pink moonlight that filtered through the muslin curtains, it was plain to see that the wood was unblemished. Underneath, I could see the rough wood ladder that led into the tunnel.

“Brother Lux, I’m growing tired of your games,” I said.

He looked up sharply. “Do you refuse to help me?”

“How can I help you? There’s nothing on the door. The ladder into the tunnel is intact, and though it’s too dark for me to see very far, there don’t seem to be any blockages.”

“What- you can actually see a tunnel?”

“Of course I can- it’s right here.”

“All I see is a flat stone floor underneath a trap door, Lady Frey.”

I sighed in frustration. “Watch me.”

I swung my legs onto the ladder and climbed down into the tunnel. Brother Lux cried out in astonishment and stumbled back, his eyes searching all around as though he could no longer see me.

“Just put your arm through- you will feel the ladder,” I said.

Brother Lux continued to stare, but did not reply.

I climbed back up, and Brother Lux stumbled backward again as I emerged from the tunnel.

“Lady Frey,” he said, straightening his robes as though to regain his composure, “please warn me the next time you decide to pass through a stone floor.”

“I spoke to you before I ascended, but you didn’t hear.”

Brother Lux crawled forward and placed his hand over the tunnel’s entrance, waving it back and forth as though brushing a flat surface.

“It’s all in your mind,” I said. I took his hand and tried to force it through the tunnel entrance, but his hand would not budge.

“The seal is very well done- it blocks light and sound, and it cannot be forced.”

I dropped Brother Lux’s hand and sat back. “I don’t think I can actually break the seal; it simply doesn’t affect me. I will have to go through the tunnel alone.”

Brother Lux nodded grimly. He went to the window and drew a heavy curtain across the muslin, and then went to the shelves that were built into the back wall. When he returned he was carrying a candle, carefully shielding its light with his hand.

“Do you know where to find the writ? Will you be alright?”

“I can find the writ; only time can tell if I will be alright.”

 

 

#

 

 

I climbed back into the tunnel and began the lonely walk to the hidden room.

I was shocked to find that, after a few steps, the tunnel flooded with light. I looked up and saw that the magic baubles that hung overhead had lit themselves, as though to welcome me.

A shiver ran down my spine. The last time I’d gone into the tunnel with Hope, he’d promised me that the demons could not hurt me. But, I thought, if their magic could react to my presence, then he might be wrong.

I took a deep breath and continued, undeterred.

My own fears were the only things that accosted me on my walk down the tunnel. The lights occasionally flickered, and my footsteps echoed through the cavern, but no demon appeared, and no one awaited me when I reached the white room.

The room had altered very little since the last time I’d seen it. It was still bare of architectural embellishment, and still sparsely furnished. The most prominent object in the room was the magic mirror, where colored light shifted and danced in mesmerizing patterns.

I had expected the room to be ice cold, but a rush of warm air greeted me as I stepped over the threshold, though I could see no hearth and no fire. I took off Hope’s coat and draped it over a white chair, and then placed the candlestick on the floor. Hope’s silver trunk, embossed with the strange circle, was still in the corner, but next to it was a new object; a black trunk embossed with the initials G.A.F.

Before Hope and I had left for St. Blanc, I’d asked Hope to find a secure place for my telescope, and he had secured it well, indeed.

I opened the silver trunk and found two documents, the writ of condemnation and the blood oath I’d made with Hope. I stuffed the blood oath into my pocket, thankful for Hope’s foresight in hiding it, and examined the writ.

The ink still glittered black and fresh against white parchment, and the High Priest’s seal remained intact. I hesitated for a moment. Though I had already agreed to help, it was proving difficult to take the writ back to Brother Lux now that I had it in my possession. What if he used it against Hope- to prove that Hope had every reason to defy the church?

But Brother Lux is a Frey, too,  I thought. If the writ can be used against Hope, it can be used against Brother Lux.

Reason held little sway with me in my present state of mind. The anxiety that had been building as I’d walked through the tunnel alone had reached its peak, and now dangerous possibilities flared to life in my mind, refusing to be snuffed out.

What if I had destroyed Hope’s seal by coming into this cavern? What if the inquisitors bypassed Hope’s seal altogether, and dug their way in? The inquisitors, lacking my ancient blood, would at least be able to see the sigils Hope had drawn on the cellar door. If they knew that the sigils were magical in nature…

“Don’t give in to despair,” I told myself aloud. “Do what you can.”

I looked around me, wondering how I could hide or destroy evidence of magic in case the inquisitors did force their way in. My telescope, while not magic, was a heretical object, so I removed it from the black trunk and placed it in the silver one. If there was a magic seal on the silver trunk, the inquisitors might not be able to open it.

I looked up at the most damning object in the room- the magic mirror with its dancing lights. I hesitated, for it seemed a shame to destroy something so beautiful, but I knew it must be done.

I reached out and touched the mirror.

 

Part XXXXIV

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