The journey to Streestown was an all-day walk and one that Brenna had made many times. The members of the Abbey were often called upon to minister to the physical ailments and spiritual needs of the surrounding area’s residents and Brenna herself had set many broken bones, applied many poultices, attended many births, and officiated many ceremonies. The sun was just setting as she entered Fallen Oaks Inn, where she often stayed when her duties kept her away from the Abbey overnight. The inn was noisy and quite full this evening, with the biggest part of the hall taken up by the local patrol and assorted female companionship. Brenna made her way to the bar and slipped off her cloak and pack, sinking gratefully down onto the stool at the end. Josiah, the innkeeper, slid a steaming bowl of stew in front of her. “Good to see you again, Priestess. Always a pleasure. That salve you made for my arm really did the trick. It’s almost as good as new!” Josiah pushed back his shirtsleeve to show off the new, pink skin. “You look to be staying for a bit. Is the Jacobsen girl birthing already?”
“No, she’s not due for another three weeks. Sister Clarice will attend her birth. I’ve been summoned to the castle to attend King Alfonse’s crossing.” She dug into the stew thankfully.
“I had no idea the King was so close to passing. May the Goddess bless him,” Josiah said. “You’re not planning to go alone, are you? These are dangerous times, Priestess. There are more of this lot around,” he nodded in the direction of a rowdy group near the fire, “than I’ve ever seen and patrols have been stepped up all over the kingdom, what with all the trouble with those One God zealots. It’s been good for business, but …” his voice trailed off as the patrolmen burst into song and jostled one another, spilling beer onto the table, benches and floor.
“Mother Yoshiko has instructed me to hire a guide for the journey. I was hoping you could recommend someone.” She threw a doubtful glance over her shoulder and Josiah smiled.
“Not one of those blokes, eh? No, you want that fellow over there, with Yvette.” Josiah indicated a man sitting at a small table in the opposite corner of the room, with a pretty, buxom tavern wench fawning over him. “Best man for the job, that one. Rumor has it he was once in service to the Queen herself! He doesn’t look to be one of those uppity Court fops, though. There’s a story there, I’ll bet.”
Brenna followed Josiah’s gaze back to the stranger. He was sitting with his back against the wall, his profile in shadow. He certainly wasn’t dressed like a member of the Court, but if it was true he’d once been in service to Queen Alamara, he would at least know how to get her to Locallen safely. “Thank you, Josiah. I’ll inquire as to his availability.” She finished her stew and smiled at Josiah. “You have a full house this evening. Are there any rooms still available or am I relegated to the barn?”
“There is always room for you, Priestess. You can have Yvette’s room. It looks like she won’t be needing it tonight.” Brenna followed Josiah’s gaze back toward the stranger and decided she’d better speak with him soon, before he and Yvette disappeared for the evening. She slid off the barstool and crossed the room toward them.
As Brenna approached their table, Yvette glared up at her and moved to position herself between the man and Brenna. Brenna ignored her, clearing her throat to get the man’s attention. “Excuse me. The innkeeper tells me you work as a guide. Are you available for hire?”
The man didn’t look up or seem to acknowledge her, his attention on Yvette’s ample cleavage, which she thrust into his face as she wriggled and squirmed on his lap, but he gestured toward the increasingly drunken party around the fire and said, “Plenty of babysitters for hire over there.”
“Josiah tells me you’re the best man for the job. I have been summoned to attend King Alfonse and must travel to Locallen right away. You were in service to the Queen, yes?”
The man seemed to stiffen at that but kept his attention on Yvette’s bosom. “No good can come of a visit to Locallen,” he growled and finally turned to look at her. As their eyes met, Brenna gasped. He was startlingly, ruggedly handsome, with a square jaw, salt-and-pepper, close-cropped hair and hazel eyes that seemed both golden brown and spring green at once. Brenna felt as if they’d met before, that they knew each other completely and intimately, despite the fact that she was certain she’d never seen him until that moment. He too seemed to feel the connection they shared, for he abruptly pushed Yvette off his lap with a curt “Leave us,” and turned to face Brenna. “Sit down, Priestess” he said, indicating the seat opposite him at the table. As Brenna sat, Yvette started to drape herself around the man’s back, trying desperately to keep his attention. He pushed her away with a glare and she turned on her heel, pouting as she stomped back toward the bar.
The man sat back against the wall, crossed his arms across his chest and considered Brenna. She returned his gaze evenly, feeling mildly irritated at his smug perusal of her. If this was his attitude, it was going to be a long, difficult three months’ journey to the coast and the castle, and she was still more than a little disturbed by the initial shock of their connection, although she tried not to show it. What could it mean? Had they met in a previous incarnation? Had they been lovers in a past life? Brenna had heard stories of the soul-bound, ones whose lives were forever bound together and who were destined to find and be with each other throughout every incarnation. She hadn’t ever really believed the stories, though. They were just romantic tales told by lovesick girls at the Abbey, weren’t they? How could such a thing be?
Brenna became aware again of the man’s bemused gaze, blushed a bit for daydreaming and turned her attention back to their discussion. “Tell me more about the job,” he said.
“His Majesty, King Alfonse, has been ill for many years. As the time of his death grows near, Queen Alamara has sent word to my Abbey that I am to attend the King as he crosses. I have been instructed to hire a guide to escort me there, as the road is long and dangerous, apparently.”
“It’s not a journey for anyone to undertake alone, especially an unarmed woman. The road passes through the desert tribes’ territory.” He took a swig of something in his mug, watching for her reaction. Seeing none, he continued. “Why send for you, halfway across the kingdom, when there are healers at Charcond Abbey? Do you have some special talent for helping dying kings?”
“Her Majesty and I were childhood friends. Perhaps she has remembered that bond. Regardless, it is not my place to question the Queen. And I assure you, I’m perfectly capable of traveling alone. I would do so if it were not for the express command of Mother Yoshiko that I hire a guide.” She said the last bit defiantly, not completely believing it herself but also not willing for him to see her as weak and helpless. An unarmed woman, indeed!
His face took on a bemused expression and he took another drink from his mug in a half-hearted attempt to conceal it. “I can take you as far as the town gates, but I’ll not go inside. I’ve no love of that place and no wish to revisit it any time soon. If you’re as capable as you say, you’ll have no trouble getting from the gates to the keep. What are you offering?” he glanced at her pointedly before continuing, “as payment?”
“Two hundred gold. Half now and the rest when we arrive safely at the gates.” She had more, of course, but decided against offering it. The nerve of the man! Was he implying that her sexual favors should be part of the bargain as well?
“Make it three hundred and we have a deal.”
“Fine, three hundred it is. I must leave tomorrow and travel as quickly as possible to Locallen.”
“We leave at first light, then. The weather should be good for it, now that most of the frosts have passed. Not much chance of snow slowing us down through the mountains at this time of the year.” He rose to leave, draining his mug in the process, and Brenna stood as well. “Sleep well, Priestess. You’ll need the rest for tomorrow’s leg of the journey.” He caught Josiah’s attention, left a pile of coins on the table for his bar tab and started toward the door.
“Wait,” Brenna called, touching his arm to catch his attention. As her fingers brushed his upper arm, an electric tingle passed between them and they both stopped, feeling the inexplicable connection. Their eyes locked and Brenna once again felt that they’d known each other for years, lifetimes. Suddenly flustered, she stammered, “I … I don’t even know your name.”
“Garan. Garan Lyons, at your service, Priestess. And you are …”
“Brenna Samuels.” He bowed his head slightly in deference and then turned and headed out of the inn and into the night.