BtQC-Chapters 5 and 6
They left at dawn, after a hearty breakfast, a well-stocked larder of food for the first part of the journey, and many hugs and tears from Josiah. Brenna half expected to see Yvette or the men from the previous night lurking about as they started off, but after they’d traveled for a few hours without sight of them, she turned her attention to the journey at hand. Garan had chosen a southwesterly route along the base of foothills, but Brenna knew they’d eventually be crossing open desert where it the desert tribes roamed. She had heard the whispered stories about the marauding, nomadic bandits and outlaws who robbed hapless travelers, or worse. She determinedly focused on the current leg of the trip, however, because she knew worrying about what might be coming down the road would do nothing but make her more frightened. Besides, Garan wasn’t much of a conversationalist and was keeping a brisk pace. The road, although fairly smooth and even, was slightly uphill. They were moving quickly because Garan wanted to reach a secluded clearing before nightfall, and because she had mentioned how important it was that she arrive at Locallen as soon as possible, but she silently wished he would slow down a bit.
They stopped for lunch under the shade of an ancient oak tree, and Brenna took the opportunity to harvest a few acorns and oak galls for her medicine bag, thanking the ancient spirit of the tree as she did so. Garan scoffed at that, which Brenna found odd.
“You’re not a follower of the Old Ways, then? You’re a worshipper of the One God?” Brenna had studied the lore surrounding The Purge, of course. It was a required topic of study at The Abbey. The ancient myths told that before The Purge, most of the people worshipped a single god, although there was some disagreement about the god’s name, which over time grew into a huge source of contention among the peoples of the world. In the centuries after The Purge, those who survived turned to the Old Ways, the polytheistic, goddess-based faith of their foremothers. Recently, however, Brenna had heard that a growing number of worshippers were returning to the faith of the One God, although she had never met any of them personally.
“I’m a follower of no ways, priestess. As far as I can tell, the gods don’t give a damn about us or our petty problems, no matter how much we worship them and make offerings to them and sing their praises. Believing otherwise is a foolish waste of time. No offense,” he added as an afterthought.
“What a sad, hopeless life you must lead,” Brenna said.
“Yeah, but at least I’m going through it with my eyes wide open. I’m in control of my own destiny, not some made-up deity that can decide on a whim whether or not to ruin my day or my life.” With that, he stood and starting preparing to continue the journey. As Brenna gathered her things, she wondered what terrible events must’ve taken place in Garan’s past to cause him to abandon his faith. She couldn’t imagine a life without belief in the Goddess, or some spiritual foundation.
They walked for the rest of the afternoon in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, until Garan called a halt in a small clearing surrounded by large, granite boulders. It was an excellent spot that offered shelter from any wind that might come up during the night, and the clear, deepening sky showed no sign of rain. Garan built a fire in the middle of the clearing and Brenna took her small cauldron to a stream a short distance away, filling it with water and returning to the fire to throw some dried meat and vegetables that Josiah had packed for them into it. Soon, they had a simple stew for supper.
As they settled down to eat, Brenna said a quick blessing over the meal, glancing at Garan as she did so to gauge his reaction. His face remained impassive during the blessing, but he nodded almost imperceptibly at her when she finished.
“So, what made you decide to become a priestess?” Garan asked around a mouthful of stew. Brenna was surprised at the question, given his earlier disdain.
“Sister Francine,” she said. At Garan’s look of confusion, she continued. “Sister Francine is an elder of Streestown Abbey and was a frequent visitor to our farm and village when I was a child. She always had a smile on her face, a twinkle in her eye and a kind word for everyone she met. I was fascinated with her ability to perform healings and divination and to work spells, so I decided that I wanted to be like her when I grew up. Being the third daughter of seven children, my other prospects didn’t look too promising.” A smile played at the corners of her mouth.
“Marriage and family isn’t your cup of tea?”
“It’s not that I didn’t want those things. I just wanted more. At the Abbey, I am able to study lore, herbcraft, farming, and healing. And the libraries …” Her voice trailed off as a wave of homesickness washed over her. She had lived at Streestown Abbey since she was 18 years old. Would she ever see it again?
With supper finished and her cauldron rinsed clean, Brenna arranged her cloak into a passable bedroll and settled down near the fire to try to sleep. She was tired and hadn’t slept well in the past two nights, so she hoped to get plenty of rest before the next leg of their journey. Garan positioned himself on the opposite side of the fire from her, stretching out onto his back and falling asleep almost instantly. Brenna, however, found sleep eluding her once again. She’d hardly ever slept outside on the ground and found it hard to get comfortable. Then there were the noises – the rustling of some small creature in the grass near the boulders, the hooting of an owl in the tree near the stream, the yipping and howling of a coyote pack off in the distance. She thought of Lorianne, Francine, Mother Yoshiko and her friends back at the Abbey and grew suddenly sad. She missed them all terribly and she’d only been gone two days! But then she thought of how wonderful it would be to see Alamara again and about her duty to her dying king and was heartened a bit. Finally, she sung an old chant to herself that she’d learned when she first came to live at the Abbey and was soon fast asleep as well.
Their days continued in much the same way for the next few weeks. They chatted sometimes as they walked, and Brenna gathered herbs and spell components whenever she could find them. As their food supplies dwindled, Garan hunted small game or fished whenever he had the opportunity, and Brenna was in great demand from the occasional traveler they met for her blessings, healings and spellwork. While she wouldn’t exactly say that they were becoming friends, she and Garan did seem to be developing a mutual trust and begrudging admiration of one another.
He had a wry sense of humor that Brenna found surprising and delightful, and he seemed to be regarding her more like an equal traveling companion and less like a burdensome charge as the days went by. After the first few days of exhaustion and discomfort when they stopped to camp for the night, Brenna felt herself growing stronger and found that she enjoyed being outside and close to the Goddess. The mild spring weather had been dry so far and was perfect for travel, and with any luck they’d arrive at Locallen before the summer’s heat had fully descended upon the lands.
Brenna still couldn’t shake the feeling that she knew Garan, however, or had at least known him before, in some other life. She did her best to avoid being too close to him or touching him because the intensity of their connection was, at the least, distracting. She found herself more and more attracted to him, and worked studiously to avoid letting him know it. In another month or two, she’d be immersed in her duties at the castle and would most likely never see him again. It was better to focus on the upcoming task and not dwell on pleasant fantasies of the two of them together.
As they traveled, Brenna did her best to keep the rituals of her faith. Despite their initial disagreement regarding their personal spiritual beliefs, Garan kept a respectful distance and silence during her blessings and healing work, which Brenna appreciated. She, in turn, refrained from questioning him further about his fall from the Old Ways, preferring to let her works and her manner speak for themselves of the Goddess and her worship. Brenna hoped Garan’s heart would soften over time.
On the eve of the full moon, they made an early camp in a small copse of oak trees at the base of the last of the foothills. In the morning, they would start out across the desert, and Garan anticipated that it would take them at least four days to cross the barren plain and make it to mountains on the other side. This leg of the trip would be arduous because of the dearth of fresh water, the lack of shelter from the elements and the roaming desert tribes.
“We’ve made good time on the trip so far and the weather should be good for our crossing,” Garan said.
“Have you encountered the tribes before,” Brenna asked, trying hard not to let her fear creep into her voice. She was nervous, but she put on a brave face.
“Aye, but not on their lands. The desert tribes are violent, cruel and always on the move, looking for stores of a rare, precious liquid they used to power their machines. They rarely venture far from their encampment, thankfully, but they never miss the opportunity to take whatever they can from any traveler they catch.” Garan had encountered them in a few rough settlements on the edges of the desert, but had managed to avoid them during his travels through it up to this point. If he was concerned about having Brenna put them at risk, he didn’t show it.
“I’d always assumed that the stories about encounters with the desert tribes were told to frighten children or to discourage villagers from traveling too far from home. I believed that up until the time I treated an old, mute man who was tormented by frequent nightmares of an encounter in his youth with some of them. His tongue had been cut out. His pitiful mewls and abject terror is something I will never forget.”
They sat in silence for a time, each lost in their own thoughts, before Brenna spoke again. “Is it true that they will venture into the ancient ruins, where The Purge was born?” She’d heard rumors that they were holdovers from the times before – a terrible time full of massive, warring kingdoms overrun with loud, smoke-belching machines that moved as fast as the wind and made a horrific roar.
“Aye, and the ones who survive to return to their fellows are forever changed by it. There’s no telling what demons and monsters live there.” The twinkle in his eye gave him away, and Brenna could see that Garan was teasing her, trying to allay her fears. She smiled back and relaxed a bit. The next bit of their journey would be dangerous, but not impossible.
They discussed whether or not to travel by night and decided it would be the wisest course of action, both to avoid the unforgiving heat of the sun and to make themselves harder to spot by those who would do them harm. They spent the rest of the daylight hours gathering food and water for the push across the desert, and making sure their supplies were in order. Garan sat near the fire, sharpening and honing his sword and his dagger well after Brenna had settled in for the night, and finally lay down himself just as the moon rose over foothills.