Brenna stood for a moment, watching Garan disappear through the tavern door and into the darkness. Her head was filled with swirling, conflicting emotions. It was done – she’d hired a guide who would hopefully get her safely and quickly to the castle at Locallen, on the coast some three months’ journey away. As of tomorrow at dawn, her adventure would begin, indeed it had started already. What confused and disturbed her the most, however, was the guide himself, Garan Lyons. It was as if she’d met him before and knew him completely, although they’d never actually met as far as she could tell. He’d felt it too, she was sure of it. What could it mean? She didn’t like him much – he’d been nothing but smug and cocky to her so far – but there was an undeniable connection between the two of them. Worse yet, Brenna found him quite attractive, and the idea of spending three months’ alone with him in the woods was both exciting and intimidating. She was no stranger to lovemaking, of course. She’d dallied with a stable boy or two in her youth and had been honored to participate in a few fertility rituals over the years. As for love, though, she’d adamantly avoided such entanglements, preferring to channel those energies into her spiritual work instead. Love was an emotion for young, naïve acolytes who got swept off their feet and away to become queen, not for Brenna. No, whatever connection she felt with Garan Lyons must be due to good, old fashioned lust, not love.
Brenna brought her attention back to the present. She had been daydreaming again, a habit from her youth that she’d not been able to conquer despite all her years and work at the Abbey. With a rueful smile, she moved back toward the bar to gather her things, noticing that the tavern had become quite empty and quiet. The revelers had all disappeared upstairs or into the night, apparently. Josiah was gathering up plates and mugs, and stopped to chat as she passed him and headed upstairs.
“You’ve found yourself a guide, then? Good! He’s the best there is, I’m told. I’ll have some breakfast on for you in the morning. Don’t you worry.” Josiah patted her arm. “Sleep well, Priestess.”
“Thank you for everything, Josiah. You’ve been such a help. I will see you in the morning. May the blessing of the Goddess be upon you.”
Brenna had stayed at Fallen Oaks Inn several times in the past, but never in Yvette’s room at the end of the hall. She noticed the sliver of light peeking out under the door, but thought nothing of it until she entered the room and saw Yvette sitting on the bed. “Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t expect to see you here. I thought you’d be … out,” Brenna stammered, turning to go.
In one swift movement, Yvette leaped up and blocked Brenna’s exit. “No, of course you are surprised to see me. You thought you could steal my man and kick me out of my own room. You think you’re so special, just because you’re a priestess. Well, he’s mine! I saw him first and you can’t have him!” Yvette’s face was with red with anger and her fists were clenched at her sides.
“What? No, I only hired him as a guide for my journey. If there is anything between you and him it is none of my concern.” Brenna wondered if she’d be relegated to the barn after all or if Josiah would intervene. She had no wish to argue with Yvette, especially over Garan Lyons. Yvette, however, had worked herself up into a huge snit.
“You aren’t any better than me! I’m just as good as you are!”
“Of course you are, Yvette. He’s all yours. If you hurry, you might be able to catch him,” Brenna said, hoping to distract the girl. She only wanted to try to catch a few hours’ sleep before dawn and the sooner she could do that, either here or in the barn, the better.
“Someone needs to knock you off your high horse,” Yvette said, taking a step toward her. Brenna dropped her pack, shifted her grip on her staff and eyed Yvette. She didn’t want to fight with the girl, but Yvette was still blocking the doorway and looked to do Brenna harm. As Yvette flung herself at Brenna, Brenna sidestepped and swept the end of her staff at Yvette’s shins, tripping her and knocking her into the bed’s footboard. Yvette cried out and whirled around to face Brenna again, tears streaming down her face and her lip beginning to swell where she’d fallen against the bedpost.
“Yvette, stop! I don’t want to hurt you!” Brenna grasped her staff in both hands, ready to defend herself should Yvette attack again, but suddenly someone grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides.
“What have we here, a cat fight? Now, now, girls, there’s plenty of us to go around.” It was one of the men from tavern and judging by the smell of him, he was quite drunk. Another man entered the room and wrenched Brenna’s staff away from her, throwing it into the corner.
“Ha! You’ve got a feisty one there, eh Georgie?” The second man leered at her, swaying drunkenly on his feet. “Ooo, and a priestess too. You know what they say about those Goddess girls!” He turned to Yvette, and looked her up and down appreciatively. “Hello, dearie! What’ve you got for ol’ Marco?”
A wicked smile crossed Yvette’s face and she winked at Marco. “I’ll tell you what, handsome. When you gentlemen have finished with the priestess here, I’ll meet you downstairs for some real fun. And don’t worry, she likes it rough!” Yvette launched herself at Brenna again and Brenna did the only thing she could do to protect herself. She raised her foot and kicked Yvette squarely in the stomach as hard as she could, sending the girl flying backwards and into Marco in the middle of the room. As they both toppled to the floor, Brenna stomped hard on Georgie’s foot, shifting sideways slightly as he howled in pain and driving her elbow into his ribs with all her strength. He cursed then and loosened his grip just enough for Brenna to wrest free, but he grabbed her cloak before she could escape completely.
“You wanna fight, bitch?” He snarled, hauling her back toward him. Brenna cast about the room wildly, looking for something to use to defend herself. She snatched up a pewter pitcher on the wash stand by the door, pivoting to smash it into the side of the man’s head. The impact made a dull thud and the man released her, slipping to the ground, unconscious.
Brenna was breathing hard now, her blood pounding in her ears in a mixture of fear and anger. She turned to face Yvette and the second man, who were still on the floor. The man appeared to be unconscious as well, but Yvette was struggling to her feet when she looked past Brenna to the doorway. All at once, her expression changed from jealous rage to an almost cartoonish-looking wounded animal and she mewled piteously.
“By all the gods, what is going on in here?” Brenna turned to see both Garan and Josiah charging through the doorway into the room. She followed their gaze as they took in the scene – one man unconscious and bleeding in the doorway, another sprawled in the middle of the floor, furniture askew, and a disheveled priestess standing like the triumphant warrior over the wounded and sniveling Yvette.
“I was attacked. Evidently, Yvette was not happy about having to give up her room this evening,” Brenna said, glaring at the girl on the floor, who had ramped up her histrionics and was crawling across the floor toward Garan.
“Oh, thank the gods you’ve come. Protect me from this horrible woman! Do you see what she’s done to my face?” Yvette threw herself into Garan’s arms, but he disengaged himself and turned to Brenna with the same bemused expression Brenna had seen earlier.
“Friends of yours?” Garan indicated the two men on the floor, who were beginning to moan and stir a bit.
“Hardly. Opportunists, more likely,” Brenna said, crossing the room to pick up her staff and assuming a guarded stance as they roused themselves.
“Get out, the lot of you!” Josiah shouted and the two men staggered through the doorway and into the hall. “You too, Yvette,” he added, rounding on the girl with a look of contempt. “I’ve turned a blind eye to your whoring ways for years, but you’ll not harm a priestess of the Abbey in my inn. No, I don’t want to hear it. Get out!”
Yvette glanced from Brenna to Garan to Josiah, but seeing no sympathy or pity, dropped her pretense of the helpless victim. Her facial expression hardened instantly and she straightened up, gathering her last few shreds of pride. “Alright then, I’m leaving. This isn’t over, though,” she added, throwing one last look of hatred at Brenna before she passed through the doorway and was gone. Josiah trailed after her, hurling invectives, and Brenna and Garan were left alone in the room.
“Are you alright?” Garan asked, the bemused smile still playing across his face.
Brenna let herself relax then and took a deep breath. “I’m not harmed, just a bit frightened.” She started to tell him that Yvette had attacked her in a fit of jealousy, but changed her mind. “Thank you for coming to my rescue,” she said instead.
“Not at all. You appear to be self-rescuing,” he said, and Brenna couldn’t tell if he was teasing or serious. “When did you learn to fight with a staff? I thought the ladies of the Abbey were peace-loving and non-violent.”
“The Abbey does greatly value peace and gentleness, but our Order has trained its members in the defensive arts for many generations. As women who often travel alone, it has proved quite prudent. We are charged to never attack and only defend ourselves or those too helpless to defend themselves after we have exhausted all other means of conflict resolution. Unfortunately, some opponents are not open to reasonable discussions.” The adrenaline of the encounter was beginning to wear off and Brenna moved to sit on the edge of the bed to hide her shaking legs and sudden exhaustion. Garan noticed, however, and regarded her with a mixture of new-found respect and begrudging concern.
“Do you want me to stay? You know, so you can get some sleep before tomorrow morning?” He added the last bit hastily, as if to reassure her of his intentions.
“No, no, I’ll be fine, thank you. Good night!” She stood and they faced each other for an awkward moment before Garan turned to leave. “Garan,” Brenna called and he stopped on the threshold, moving back into the room to stand before her. “I saw you leave the inn tonight. Why did you come back?”
He was dangerously close, and he smiled down at her with that now familiar, bemused expression on his face. “I don’t know what called me back. I guess I just wanted to be sure you were all right. Good night, Brenna.” With that, he turned and was gone again.