The Coven, Part LXXXIX

Read from the beginning.

Mercy’s motions almost blurred together as she moved, and if I had not already learned the cadence of her fighting style, I would not have been able to follow her motions at all. I had to focus all of my attention on evading her blows, because she was aiming for my most vulnerable spots with all of her strength.

I was injured, and Mercy was armed, but I did not have the Luxury to panic. Fleeing would mean leaving Prudence alone in the hands of our enemies. So I anticipated Mercy’s feints and tried desperately to find an opening to attack.

I don’t have to fully disable her, I realized. Mercy must be hypnotized as well. All I need to do is break the spell.

      Completely breaking a spell, however, required a great deal of concentration, and it took all of my focus just to evade Mercy’s lethal attacks. My ankle, which Mercy must have grabbed to jerk me out of the tree, protested with every movement, and Mercy spotted the weakness quickly. She swept my legs and I fell.

“You don’t want to fight me,” I huffed, rolling away from another blow. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You don’t know know what I want,” Mercy growled.

“This isn’t you- Pius has hypnotized you,” I said.

Though I hadn’t touched her, Mercy fell back and hissed as though in pain.

I took the opportunity to spring to my feet once more and aimed a blow at Mercy, which she evaded.

“Stop trying to trick me,” Mercy growled. “Wisdom has given me power. I’m stronger than all of my enemies, now.”

“’Wisdom’ is your enemy,” I said. “He imprisoned your friends, he imprisoned Chastity- your teacher. He tortured and maimed them.”

Mercy cried out this time, clutching her head. I took a deep breath and reached out to break the spell, but Mercy rallied, and struck another blow to my injured shoulder.

I fell back as Mercy advanced, clutching my injury.

“It hurts when I tell the truth, doesn’t it?” I said. “It hurts when reality is discordant with the spell. You know that Pius is your enemy- the pain you feel now is the proof.”

Mercy fell to her knees and screamed aloud- a primal, animal cry that made me fall back in sheer reflex. I remembered my father as he gasped in bed, in so much pain that he could not breathe. I realized that my father’s pain must have been the same pain that Prudence had once felt for years before she gained the ability to see the illusions of magic for what they were.

Inside me, a feeling started to grow- a hatred for this thing that broke people’s minds and bound them in a prison of illusion. I hated the lies that magic told and its ability to veil the truth of reality. Righteous fury swelled inside me until it burst forth, flooding the starlit field around me.

“Oh!” Mercy gasped. She stood, shaking her head as though to clear it. “Oh- Lady Frey. What have I done? Are you alright?”

“I will be,” I said. “Are you alright?”

“I think so, but- oh! Your shoulder. It may be broken.”

Mercy tossed her staff aside and ran to examine me, and I heard a harsh hushing noise from the window.

“Shhh- be quiet, you two,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t safe to speak anymore; come inside, quickly.”

“Do you think you can climb?” Mercy whispered to me.

I rolled my ankle a little to test it. The sharp pain was starting to dissipate, and though it tingled with warmth, I could move it freely. My shoulder, however, would not allow me to raise my arm to reach the branches above me.

“Here- I will climb first and help you,” Mercy said. “I won’t be able to examine your arm properly until we are inside.”

I nodded and allowed Mercy to go first, and then reached for her outstretched hand with my good one. The going was slow, but between the two of us I managed to make it up the tree and through the window.

Prudence helped us through and then embraced me gingerly, whispering “thank you” before she took a lantern and bustled through the side door.

Mercy pulled down my robes and examined my shoulder while we awaited Prudence’s return. “I don’t think it’s broken,” Mercy finally said. “I broke the skin with the first strike, though, and it’s badly bruised. We will need some rags so I can bandage it.”

“There are some linens in the cupboard,” Prudence said as she bustled back into the room. “Celeste is safe, and I’ve recast the security spells that Grace broke, so we may speak freely.”

Mercy went to the cupboard to find the linens, and Prudence took her station at my side. Prudence removed the kettle from the hob and used the hot water to clean my wound, dabbing at it gently with her handkerchief.

“I feel like such a fool,” Prudence said as she worked. “Now that the spell no longer binds me, it all seems so obvious. I should have been able to see past the hypnosis, like I can with any other magic.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself, Prudence. It was a spell cast by a God.”

“You broke the spell easily enough,” Prudence said. “You broke several spells at once.”

“It wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed. I was in pain, and I was angry. I’ve never pushed my way past spells that powerful before.”

I heard a rip of fabric as Mercy shredded the sheets into bandages.

“At least I know Pius’s motives for keeping me safe and bringing me here to Hope. He means to present me to Hope as a miracle, to take credit for resurrecting me, and- with my acquiescence- to help twist Hope’s mind to his will.”

“He promised you the queenship, didn’t he? You were muttering something to that effect before the hypnosis was broken.”

“Yes- he promised I would reign as Queen at Hope’s side.”

I heard a final rip, and then Mercy returned with a bundle of bandages.

“Whether the Prince or Lord Frey, no one is getting the crown in Aeterna without war,” Mercy said bluntly.

“So, then what do we do?” Prudence asked, shuffling backward on her knees to allow Mercy access to my arm.

Mercy lifted my arm a little to position the bandages, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out in pain. We sat in silence for a time, each lost in our own thoughts as the lantern burned dimmer and dimmer.

“We must flee as soon as we can, which will not be easy. The prisoners are all held with chains heavy enough to thwart even Chastity’s strength, and the Cathedral is crawling with guards. It was difficult enough for me to slip away unnoticed,” I said.

Mercy nodded thoughtfully. “We are in a similar position, though without the chains. Pius kept a close watch on us until we had been hypnotized. Prudence, do you have a pin I could use to keep the bandage in place?”

“I don’t think we could make it past his magical protections without Pius noticing,” Prudence added, standing to fetch the pin.

“Perhaps you could if you went with me- I was able to pass through Pius’s protections undetected. I could steal inquisitor’s robes to disguise all of you, and you can flee to del Sol.”

“Celeste’s robes would require hemming,” Prudence said dryly. “The inquisition is not so in need of members that they recruit 11 year olds.”

“Ah- yes. That would be a problem,” I said.

“Besides- once we’ve escaped, how long will it be until we’re caught on the road? Will I be avoiding inquisitors for another decade?” Prudence handed Mercy a pin and then knelt beside her. “Don’t add to your anxiety by trying to plan a fruitless escape, Grace. We are under the thumb of a God, and we have yet to accomplish any of our goals. Hope is still held in chains, facing the gallows, and I have yet to find any information on the underground route to del Sol. I think I should stay where I am, where I can watch our enemies more closely.”

Mercy quirked an eyebrow at Prudence. “What are you going to do- play spy?”

“Why not?” Prudence asked.

“Pius will know that I’ve broken the hypnosis,” I said. “He and Lux can see magic-“

Prudence smiled. “So can I. Let him hypnotize me again. I will be able to see past it, now that I know what I’m looking for. I can keep the spell in place while keeping my mind my own.”

“I can’t,” Mercy said bluntly.

“All Lux asked was that you protect me from Grace,” Prudence said, “and I won’t need such protection.”

Prudence looked back at me, a kind of triumph glittering in her blue eyes that frightened me in its prematurity.

“When I contradicted the hypnosis earlier- before the spell was broken- it caused you pain. My father suffered the same pain before I freed him from his spell.”

“When I was hypnotized, everything felt wrong,” Prudence said. “I loved Lux again as a brother- it was a love I had lost long ago, and was glad to have again. At the same time, something in the back of my mind was screaming at me that this was dangerous- that there was something wrong with the story he’d told me, but I couldn’t see what. You told me where the dissonance was, and the spell pushed back.”

Prudence stood up and offered me her hand. “Now that you’ve shown me- the same way that you showed me my face- I can find the boundary between my true thoughts and the thoughts magic has planted in my mind. I know I can, as surely as I found my true face. Trust me, Grace.”

I took Prudence’s hand and stood.

“And what about Celeste? If you stay-“

“I will protect Celeste,” Mercy interrupted. “You- concentrate on saving Lord Frey.”

As if to shut down any argument I might make, Mercy spun on her heel and walked away, into the next room where Celeste slept.

 

 

#

 

 

I could think of no other argument to dissuade Prudence. Her movements were strong and sure as she helped me down the tree and back into the annex courtyard. When we were steady once more on firm ground, she turned and smiled at me, her face ghostly pale in the moonlight.

“How can I leave you in the power of a madman?” I whispered to her.

Prudence took my hands in hers. “You can leave me because Hope is waiting for you, and he’s in far more danger than I.”

I started to drop her hands, to turn away, and then hesitated- torn between Prudence and Hope once more. Prudence laughed at my hesitation, and then leaned down to kiss me.

Those lips I’d traced over and over again, trying to capture their perfection, touched mine, and before I could memorize how they felt they were gone, leaving the faintest impression in their wake.

“Go back,” Prudence said. She stooped down and picked up the staff Mercy had left on the lawn, and held it in such a natural way she looked ready for any opponent to strike.

“Go to Hope. Free him,” she said.

“I promise I will.”

I turned away and, ignoring every instinct that screamed at me not to leave Prudence, and followed the instinct that drew me back to Hope.

 

 

#

 

“Hurry and ready yourself,” a sharp voice woke me. “We must get to the courtroom before the sun rises.”

It had hardly seemed a second since I’d returned to the infirmary and slipped into the cot beside Hope. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and peered blearily at the inquisitor before me.

“Where is Brother Amicus?” I asked. “He is my usual escort.”

“Brother Amicus has more important things to do,” the inquisitor snapped. “Do as I say and get ready- today is your day to speak, and you must be presentable.”

I sat up, and Hope stirred.

“Grace- has the sun risen already?” he asked.

“No, but we must go early,” I said.

I went to the washbasin and tried to ignore the heavy presence of the inquisitor, who stood close behind me as I washed my face and combed and pinned my hair.

When I had completed my toilette, the inquisitor stopped me and looked me over from head to toe.

“Your fine dress is wrinkled in the back, and your eyes are red. Good- your fatigue will garner sympathy. Come with me- there is no need to utter goodbyes. You will see your husband in the courtroom soon enough.”

Another inquisitor met us at the Cathedral door and led us to a seat closest to the High Priest’s dais. Even though the courtroom was almost empty, the two inquisitors flanked me very closely where I sat. A line of guards stood together like a gate before the courtroom door, behind which I could hear the rumble of the crowd.

Soon after I’d arrived, Father Pius entered the room- his white cloak sweeping the ground behind him. He did not go to the dais, but went straight to me, brushing aside the inquisitors.

“Miss Celeste, Sister Jubilee, and Miss Mercy are in a carriage, bound for del Sol,” He said in a low voice. “You will not interfere with them again.”

“But you promised- you said they would be under your protection.”

“I do not break my vows,” he scoffed. “My protection extends far beyond the Cathedral grounds. Amicus is with them, and he carries a piece of my power with him.”

The two inquisitors who stood beside me did not react to this statement, but the guards near the door exchanged puzzled glances.

“Perhaps I should thank you,” Pius continued. “This place is no longer safe, and I want Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee to survive. But when you are on the stand, Lady Frey, remember that they are under my power. Do not disappoint me.”

Then Pius spun on his heel and retreated back through the side door to await his grand entrance.

I cursed under my breath that I had ignored my instincts, and had left Prudence alone. Pius’s words, “I do not break my vows,” seemed to ring in my ears, and I realized too late the first loophole in Pius’s vow- that his promise to protect Prudence only lasted until the time she returned to del Sol.

“Oh, Abbess Joy- protect them when they arrive. Protect them,” I whispered.

I did not have time to indulge in fear or regret. Too soon the cathedral doors opened, and the crowd spilled into the courtroom, pushing and arguing with each other on the way. The doors were left open even after the courtroom was full, and the line of guards remained by the door to keep the crowd outside from pushing through.

In dizzying succession, the bishops filed in, and then the prisoners, and then Pius, who sat on his his throne and called the courtroom to order with a wave of his hand.

“Mrs. Charity Auber,” Bishop Benedict called. “Please rise.”

Mrs. Auber came forward, looking tiny between the two tall inquisitors who assisted her forward. She turned to face the crowd with a serene expression and relaxed posture, as though she stood in a drawing room instead of a courtroom.

Bishop Benedict bade Mrs. Auber repeat her vows, and then graced her with a gentle smile.

“It was very brave of you to come forward, Ma’am,” he said. “I will make this as painless as possible.”

“I am always ready to do my duty,” Mrs. Auber replied with a humble bow of her head. “What will be, will be.”

“How long have you known the accused?” Benedict continued, this time in a voice loud enough to carry though the courtroom.

“I’ve known Lord Frey for a long time- ever since my dear departed husband brought me to Hill Country Village some twenty-five years ago,” Mrs. Auber answered. “The Freys were the most prominent family in the whole country, but they were always kind to my husband, though he was only a country doctor. In those days, the two boys were very young, and Lady Frey would ask my husband’s advice for dealing with the usual childhood ailments. They would often invite us to dine at Rowan Heights, and it was there we met the Goode family and their children.”

“What was your impression of the children as they grew?” Bishop Septimus asked.

“Young Hope- now Lord Frey- was a healthy, vigorous young man. His brother, now named Brother Lux, was a more quiet, sensitive boy. As far as the Goode children are concerned, young Justice was respectful and well behaved, but Prudence was tomboyish and wild, always speaking out of turn and questioning her elders.”

I smiled a little, in spite of myself, at the mental picture of the four friends.

“I did not see any signs of danger, however, until the former Lady Frey died and the former Lord Frey retired, leaving young Hope in charge of the estate. I began to hear grumblings among the young people- discontent with perceived injustices of slavery and inequality. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and the whispers stopped when the poor girl, Prudence Goode, went crazy and ran away.”

“You believed that Prudence Goode had merely gone mad?”

“Everyone thought Miss Goode was mad. She was secretive, paranoid, delusional- half of what she uttered made no sense at all. I am certain she fled because she thought her friends were persecuting her in some way, even though we only wanted to help her. For a decade we searched for her, and then one day we received word she’d been caught by the inquisition and had died in prison.”

“What effect did this news have on her family?”

“I did not have the chance to speak to Mrs. Goode, but her brother, Captain Goode, seemed enraged. He and Lord Frey spent a lot of time together afterward, shutting themselves away in so secretive a matter that it seemed more than grief- it seemed that they were plotting.”

“Other than their secretiveness, did you notice anything else odd?”

“Oh- yes,” Mrs. Auber said. “Lord Frey and Captain Goode, despite their grief, seemed to flourish at this time. I thought it strange, but they met more and more often with the Willoughbys, attending parties and dinners, making connections with the wealthy and powerful, and finding success in almost everything they did. Young Mr. Goode was promoted to Captain. Lord Frey’s Father, who had long since retired, died suddenly, and Lord Frey used his newfound wealth to great advantage- he made several very good investments that gave such returns that he was able to make many improvements to his properties.

“Lord Frey was able to raise his staff’s wages, and Miss Chastity was promoted to head maid after only a couple of years of service. She was in Lord Frey’s confidence more than Mr. Poe, the steward, so of course everyone in the village whispered about the relationship.”

Her only lies have been lies of omission, I thought. Everything she saw happened, but when it comes to witchcraft she only speaks of rumors.

      Bishop Benedict held up his hand, halting Mrs. Auber’s soliloquy. “When did you first see evidence of witchcraft?” he asked.

“I’d say that was the night of the dumb supper that was held the night of the full moon- the one-year anniversary of poor Prudence’s death.”

Mrs. Auber paused and took a deep breath, as though steeling herself for something, before she continued. “I did not think it unseemly to hold a dinner in Miss Goode’s honor. After all, everyone had loved her before she went mad. However, strange things happened that night I could not ignore.”

“Such as?”

“At dinner, Lord Frey very obviously plied his young wife with wine until the girl became ill and had to go to her room. It seemed the act of a cad, but then what young man would want his bride present while he mourned his mistress?”

“When Lady Frey became ill, did someone escort her up the stairs?”

“Yes- she was much too ill to walk. Lord Frey took her upstairs.”

“Lord Frey- but…” Bishop Septimus rifled through some papers, peering closely at them through his spectacles. “In your statement, you said that Brother Lux accompanied Lady Frey, and when Brother Lux had left Lord Frey swore vengeance on Father Sauris.”

“Oh?” Mrs. Auber’s eyes grew unfocused, and she looked up at Father Pius for a few moments with a dazed expression.

“Do your best to remember,” Father Pius said gently.

“I- I think that Lord Frey said something later- or…” Mrs. Auber patted absently at her silver hair, and looked around the courtroom as though in confusion.

“Mrs. Auber?” Bishop Benedict prodded.

“Brother Lux went to attend Lady Frey at some point in the evening- it must have been then…” Mrs. Auber shut her eyes and clutched her hands together as though trying to remember.

“The old Lady is dotty,” someone behind me whispered.

Mrs. Auber’s eyes opened, and she looked in my direction. Her eyes were filled with the same pain I’d seen last night in Prudence’s eyes, as though there were a struggle between the lies that the litany prevented her from telling and the spell that still bound her to the coven.

After a time, Bishop Benedict went to her and placed a hand on her arm. “It’s alright, Ma’am; let’s continue, and we may come back to this incident later.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Auber stood straight and smoothed her clothes.

“Did you see anything else strange- perhaps later in the evening?”

“Later that night, I saw a bonfire on the crest of bluebell hill, which is the second highest point in all of the hill country- I’m sure the light could be seen all over the country. Seeing it made me think of the stories my nurse told me as a girl.” She put her arms around herself and shivered.

“What stories were those?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“Stories of the witches’ sabbath, of course. In the tales the witches would gather around bonfires, under the full moon.”

There was some muttering throughout the courtroom, which faded when Bishop Septimus stood and spoke.

“Mrs. Auber, I have in my possession a document you submitted.” Bishop Septimus lifted a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “It is a blood oath, entered into by the accused, swearing vengeance against Father Sauris for the life of Prudence Goode, whom he had ordered arrested for witchcraft. On this document each of defendants swear, in blood, to take vengeance by whatever means necessary- even by dark magic. How did this document come to your possession?”

“That was the strangest occurrence of all,” Mrs. Auber said. “One day, when I came home from church, it was waiting on my desk. There was no note, no envelope, and no card to indicate who might have left it. When I questioned my staff, no one had any idea where it had come from.”

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

XC

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