The Coven, Part XCVI

Read from the beginning.

 

I dried myself as quickly as I could, threw on the pilgrim’s robes, and bundled Hope’s clothes into my valise. Then I followed Raven, plaiting my damp hair as I went.

All of the men were gathered in the mess area, and Hope was with them. He sat a little bit apart from the men, wearing an expression of peaceful contemplation that, combined with his pilgrim’s robes and shorn head, gave him the look of an aesthetic.

Hope looked up at me and smiled a little, gesturing toward the seat beside him. I joined him, and trays very much like the ones we had eaten from the day before were passed down the row. Hope and I each took one, and inside were rubbery eggs, porridge, and grilled vegetables.

Hope took a few bites, and then he sighed. “I dreamed of such food while I was in prison, but now I don’t have much stomach.”

“Are you unwell?”

“No- I’ve just grown unaccustomed to rich food. You may well laugh,” he said, gesturing with his fork to the unflavored vegetables and unsweetened porridge, “but this is a feast compared to what I’ve eaten these last few months. I will adjust in time.

“It will be far more difficult for me to adjust to seeing you spar,” he added with a serious expression, though his eyes glittered playfully. “It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to rescue you from that young brute and his wooden sword.”

I pushed my own eggs around my tray, and then swallowed a mouthful. “I hope that my easy victory reassured you that I don’t need rescue.”

“Oh no,” Hope laughed. “I am far too impulsive to allow for such rational reflection upon the evidence of my own senses. I’m all anxiety for you. Still, I must admit that I am impressed by how far you’ve come in the span of a couple of months- if I really was in prison for only a couple of months.”

I leaned forward and whispered. “I must make a confession. I began learning to fight while I was still at St. Blanc. Mercy taught me each morning in secret.”

“So that is why you went missing each morning and came back covered in mysterious bruises. There is one source of my anxiety put to rest. I trust that, from now on, there will be no more secrets between us.”

Hope’s tone was still light- teasing- yet I felt a stab of guilt all the same. I could not discern the source of the guilt. The only secret I could think of that remained between us were the measures I’d taken to ensure my people’s freedom- the battle at the Ancient temple, and the promise I’d made to Wisdom never to bear children. I had not intentionally concealed these facts from Hope. Absolute secrecy was required to keep the Ancients safe, and I had only remained silent due to circumstance.

I resolved to tell Hope as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but guilt still lingered in that dark place in the back of my mind where I dared not look.

 

 

#

 

 

After breakfast the lower-ranked men cleaned the barracks, and then everyone filed outside. Brother St. Anise sealed the room behind us, and then we fell into rank and resumed our march through the tunnel.

The march was just as monotonous as it had been the day before, made worse because it continued the whole day. Any cheer or conversation among the ranks of soldiers was gone; there was little else but the rhythmic sound of footsteps that echoed through the endless grey tunnel.

Hope broke the silence from time to time, trying both flattery and humility in turn to coax information from Clarity St. Anise. For all of Hope’s efforts, Clarity responded best to frustration, saying very little unless Hope uttered a statement that he found to be particularly ignorant.

“This tunnel is a most remarkable feat of construction; it seems endless. Will it take many weeks for us to reach the first exit?”

“Weeks? Don’t be ridiculous,” Clarity snapped. “It is a mere three days until we reach Rouge Village. You would know this if you’d paid any attention to the map in the cathedral.”

“Rouge Village is one of the western villages,” Hope said slowly. “Won’t it be dangerous for us to disembark while Wisdom’s troops approach?”

“Wisdom’s army will not be a problem. We have soldiers and dragoons that can lend their strength to Order’s troops, but I’m sure it won’t be necessary. By the time we arrive, Wisdom will have been defeated.”

Without thinking, I put my hand to the hilt of my sword, which was tucked into the girdle of my pilgrim’s robes. I was not at all reassured by Clarity’s confidence.

“So soon?” Hope said. “Then Wisdom’s army must be very close to the villages already.”

“Of course they are close. Wisdom’s army had a head start, and they can march straight through the forest pass, while our tunnel must go around because of the poor soil. Now please- cease these ridiculous questions. I have much more important things to worry about than putting your ignorant mind at ease.”

We continued to march until I felt I could not go another step, and then we stumbled into another barracks. Though this barracks was designated “B2,” the room looked so exactly like the one we’d left that I thought we must have walked in a circle and returned to the same place.

There was a short and quiet repast in the mess hall, and then we fell into our cots and the lights were extinguished.

Without the glow of electric light, the room was so dark that I could not tell when my eyes were open or shut. Underground, with no window to let in moonlight or starlight, I could not even discern shadows.

I started when I heard a scraping sound beside me, but relaxed when I realized that Hope was moving his cot closer. Then I felt his hand in mine, and I felt complete- like something I’d lost was found.

We lay side by side in silence for a time. Then his hand moved, and he traced his finger across my palm, just as I had when I’d first seen him in prison.

He traced the letters E-S-C-A-P-E, and he traced them a second time, followed by a question mark.

He held his palm flat, and I put my finger against it to trace. Yes. When?

      I held my palm flat again and he answered. Rouge Village. Raven’s Plan.

      Trust her?  I replied.

Yes.

What plan?

Chaos. Wait for signal. He paused a moment, and then traced some more letters. Find Prudence and Celeste- then what?

      Ships at Del Sol.

      Going where?

      The wildlands.

      Hope paused, and then wrote. Whose ships?

      Friends.  I paused then, unsure of how to convey what had happened in such a disjointed and easily misinterpreted language. Ancients using ships to escape.

      Ancients?

      Yes. Wisdom marked for death.

      I took Hope’s hand and placed it against my chest, lightly tracing his fingers over the scar that lay underneath. Hope drew in a sharp breath, his hand trembled as he traced the shape once, twice, and three times.

Then I took his palm again and wrote. I made the scar. Disguise. Fought for freedom at Ancient temple.

      How?

      Help from friends. Ancients hide until escape. Secret.

      Hope took my hand, but did not trace any more letters. Instead he brought my palm to his lips and kissed it. Then he drew me to him in a fierce embrace, kissing my brow, my cheeks, my lips.

I allowed myself to bask in his tender kisses, but after a time, I heard the voice of guilt call from the back of my mind.

I was giving Hope my secrets, and yet the guilt remained.

I dismissed the feeling, but I suddenly became very aware of where we were, and that though the room was dark, there was still no privacy. The soldiers around us could hear everything.

I did not break the kiss, but I did slow it. I did not pull away from him, nor did I advance. My actions were sensible- proper- but they still separated us a little.

Though Hope did not complain, I was certain he could sense that something new stood between us.

Part XCVII

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