BtQC – Chapters 9 and 10
Sometime later, Garan stirred, waking Brenna up as well. He sat up, stretching and yawning with an easy grace. Brenna sat up as well, glancing at Garan surreptitiously to try to gauge his feelings about the previous evening and their forced intimacy, but he seemed to take it all in stride and not be bothered by it in the least. He moved to the mouth of the cave, shielding his eyes against the morning sun and observing the clear, still sky. There was no trace of the previous night’s storm and it was already starting to warm up considerably. They rummaged in their pack for some breakfast, taking advantage of a few nearby pools of rainwater as well. It was agreed that they would shelter in the cave until nightfall and continue their sprint across the desert in the much cooler darkness. They would make their next camp tomorrow in an area of low, scrubby bushes that would offer limited protection against the elements while they waited for darkness to continue their journey. It was a common camping area for those making their way across the desert and Garan silently hoped that they wouldn’t have to share the spot with other travelers.
Finally, nightfall came and they started west again, moving swiftly and silently across the sands in the moonlight, hyper-vigilant for any sign of danger. Brenna kept her cloak pulled tightly around her and her eyes on the bushes in the distance, chanting every prayer and blessing she could remember under her breath as they hurried along. Hours passed and the moon set. Finally, they made it to their destination, just as the sky began to change from grey to pink, and she sunk to her knees with a mix of relief and gratitude.
They slept fitfully for a few hours, but it was much hotter than the previous day and they were more exposed than before. They were halfway across the desert, and they discussed whether to try to cross the remainder of the distance in one push or to stop again. There were few places between their current spot and the edge of the desert that would offer them shelter from the sun and heat, but the distance was great and Garan expressed concern that Brenna would be unable to make it without stopping to rest. Brenna bristled at that, but had to admit that Garan was probably right. They finally agreed to start out again at nightfall, push on until midday, and then stop to rest for a few hours while the heat was most intense before making the final run for the desert’s edge. Brenna could just make out the coastal mountains rising in the far distance and took heart in that. Traversing mountains would be arduous as well, but at least it would be cooler.
Brenna was dozing again when Garan shook her awake with a finger to his lips, urging her to be still. She heard it then, a deep, rumbling roar that was growing louder and closer. She could see a dust cloud heading toward them, with many wheeled, metal conveyances within it. The tribes! She fought down a wave of panic. Had they seen them? There was nowhere to hide and no way to escape. Garan urged her to stay low under the scrubby bushes, but when it became obvious that the tribe was headed straight for them, he stood up, instructing Brenna to stand behind him. As the tribe circled them, hooting and catcalling wildly, Brenna held her staff in the ready position, her back to Garan, facing the horde.
There were both men and women in the group and they wore hardly any clothing, but what little they wore was leather and metal armor and it bristled with studs and spikes. There were weapons mounted on their vehicles and weapons in their hands, but they seemed more intent on making a lot of noise and frightening Garan and Brenna than they did on harming them. One of the largest vehicles stopped in front of them finally, and an enormous man wearing a fur cape and a hideous-looking mask stepped down from the back and walked directly to Garan, towering over him. Garan regarded him calmly and they stared at each other for a long moment.
“This land belongs to me and you are here without my permission. There is a penalty for that.” The tribe hooted and cheered.
“Are you the troll come to collect a toll, then?” Garan said, not appearing to be intimidated in the least.
The tribe roared at that. The leader acknowledged the tribe’s delight and then turned back to Garan. “Yes, I am, but it doesn’t appear that you can pay. The toll is ten gallons of fuel each, but you don’t seem to have any. How shall I collect?” The tribe began to call out suggestions, and Brenna felt the panic starting to rise in her again when she had an idea.
She stepped out from behind Garan to face the terrible leader, planting her staff into the ground between them. He was so tall that she had to lean back to look at him, but she could see his eyes behind the awful mask. She grounded and centered herself, bidding the Goddess to come into her, and felt the familiar flood of energy and warmth, signifying the charge. Her face changed and her eyes steeled. “I am a priestess of the Goddess. I give you Her blessing and ask that you let us pass unmolested through your lands. We are traveling to Locallen for Their Royal Majesties, Alamara and Alfonse.”
Brenna expected him to argue with her or for the tribes to laugh, but there was only a hushed, nervous titter from the crowd. Garan started to speak but crossed his arms instead, standing behind Brenna and waiting to see what would happen next. For a long moment the tribe’s leader and Brenna regarded each other, then the enormous man snorted derisively. “A priestess of the Goddess on a mission from the King? And this concerns me how?”
“It doesn’t concern you at all unless you intend to hinder our journey in some way.”
“But I have been inconvenienced. I have been offended by your trespass on my land. I require recompense.” He leaned in menacingly but Brenna stood her ground.
“It is obvious that we have none of this fuel you seek,” Brenna said. “What else will you accept as payment?”
“I think you will do nicely,” he said, reaching for her arm. The tribes screamed appreciatively and Garan started forward, determined to protect her.
Brenna moved back a step, just out of reach, but still close to the man. “My body is not on offer,” she said with a calm, even voice, “but I do have certain talents and abilities you may find useful. I am a healer and can work powerful magic. Surely you have need of some charm or spell. Perhaps a talisman to help you find this fuel you so desperately seek?”
The leader seemed to consider this and the tribes murmured amongst themselves, fascinated by this turn of events. After another long moment, the man raised his arm and made a beckoning gesture toward the vehicle he’d been riding in, and a pale, slender youth with long, stringy, icy-blond hair walked toward them. As he grew closer, Brenna could see his sunken, dull eyes and colorless lips and knew that he was terribly ill. She turned her attention to him immediately, reaching out to touch him gently and question him about his symptoms. Garan, the leader and the tribe watched in rapt attention as Brenna urged the boy to sit down and then kneeled over him, closing her eyes and placing her hands gently on different spots on his body for a few moments before moving them to another spot. The boy coughed wetly a few times and then lay back, closing his eyes and sighing deeply. After a bit, Brenna sat back and opened her eyes, moving to fetch her pack and retrieve a small pouch of dried herbs which she handed to the leader.
“He is young and strong, so we should begin to see an improvement in a few hours. You will need to make a weak tea with this and give it to him in the morning when he awakens and at night before he goes to sleep. It is bitter, so if you have any honey or berry juice to sweeten it with, that will help. You have water, yes?”
The boy stood then, moving slowly back to huge man’s side. The man pulled his face close, looking into his eyes and then caressing the boy’s long hair in a surprisingly tender gesture. He turned gruffly back to Brenna and said, “You will come with us. If he is not better in a few hours as promised, you will provide alternative payment.”
“Only if my guide comes with me and you take us toward the coastal mountains.” Brenna stood where she was, defiant.
The leader had reached his vehicle by this point and bade the youth to get in. He ordered two others out of the contraption and stood by the open door, waiting for Brenna and Garan to enter. They grabbed their things and headed toward it, Garan whispering “I hope you know what you’re doing,” as they climbed in to sit across from the boy. In a moment, the vehicle roared to life and they were speeding westward.
Brenna had never been in a wagon like the one she rode in now, and it was both exhilarating and frightening. They bumped and rattled along the ground at an impossible speed, dust flying and black, oily smoke belching from behind them as the thing flew along. The ground was a blur and Brenna felt herself growing slightly nauseous from the motion and the smell. She distracted herself by looking at the boy, who was sitting facing her with his head resting on the leader’s shoulders. It was too loud to speak, but Brenna reached across to take the boy’s hand and he smiled weakly at her.
Brenna leaned close to Garan. “I think it’s working,” she said into his ear so he could hear her over the noise. Garan nodded but didn’t answer or turn to look at her, his eyes fixed on the leader. Brenna turned back to the boy again and smiled at him. His eyes were closed now and he appeared to be dozing. “That’s a good sign,” she thought, but wondered how he could possibly sleep with the motion of the machine.
The hours passed and soon they arrived at a small encampment at the base of the mountains that looked as though it had been assembled from tents, broken down traveling machines and objects discarded in the desert. Garan frowned as the vehicles all drove through a huge metal gate topped with armor-clad warriors manning ominous-looking weapons mounted on either side. When the gates slid closed behind them with a clang, he shot Brenna a look of concern but said nothing. He hoped their situation hadn’t just gone from bad to worse.
At that moment, Brenna was just relieved that the machines had finally grown quiet and still. Unbelievably, they had just gone two days’ journey in the space of a couple of hours, but she was feeling mildly ill from the ride. The door of the conveyance opened and the leader stepped out to the cheers and calls of the other tribe members. He turned back to the boy, offering him a hand as he climbed out of the vehicle. Brenna could see that the healing was already working because his eyes looked clearer and brighter and he seemed less frail and weak than when she’d first seen him. She scrambled out after the boy with Garan right behind her and they found themselves surrounded by hundreds of tribe members, all pushing, calling, jostling each other and trying to get a closer look at the newcomers and the boy. Brenna shrank back a bit and gripped her staff tightly.
“Kinsmen, we have returned triumphant. We have not found the fuel we so desperately desire, but we have brought you something better. A healer!” The leader pulled Brenna forward and the crowd surged toward them, cheering. Garan stepped in front of Brenna to shield her from the crowd, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Wait! That was not our arrangement. We agreed that if the boy showed signs of healing, our toll to you would be fulfilled and we would be free to go.” Brenna whirled on the leader, hoping she sounded braver than she felt.
“That was before I knew how useful you were,” he said. “We have no healer and the desert is filled with things that try to kill us every day. I have decided that you will become part of the tribe. Your mate may leave, though.”
The crowd roared its approval at that and Brenna started to protest when Garan spoke up. “The woman is mine. I will fight for her.” He drew his sword and held it over his head. “Who is your champion?”
Brenna spun around, glaring at Garan. “What?!?” she demanded. Was he trying to get himself killed?
The crowd had already parted, though, and a giant, muscle-bound man in nothing but a leather loincloth, studded wrist braces and a barred metal facemask stepped forward into opening, swinging a handful of heavy iron chains over his head and growling. Garan moved toward him, sword at the ready, but Brenna grabbed his arm. “Stop! What are you doing? This is madness!” she said.
“You hired me to protect you. Besides, I’m not worried. You’re a healer.” He smiled that bemused, teasing smile of his and Brenna realized that he was actually enjoying this. Was he really looking forward to the fight?
“I hired you as a guide, which you cannot do if you are dead!” But Garan had already turned back to his opponent, his sword at the ready again. “Oh, for the Goddess’s sake, be careful!” she said, grasping his hand and sending him a little burst of protection energy. He turned back to her suddenly, gathering her close against him with his free arm and kissing her deeply. Time stopped as they kissed, then pulled apart to look into each others’ eyes. A sea of emotions passed between them before the catcalls of the crowd drew them back to the present. Garan released her then and plunged into the fight.
The men clashed together, the tribe champion trying over and over to slash Garan with the chains and Garan deftly avoiding them at the last minute. Both men grunted, sweated and lashed out, but neither seemed to be gaining advantage over the other. Brenna watched from the edge of the circle, chanting a prayer of protection and sending as much energy to Garan as she could. The fight went on for several minutes when suddenly Garan’s sword and the tribesman’s chains became entangled, putting them nose to nose with one another. The tribesman head-butted Garan hard then, smashing the metal bars of his face mask into Garan’s forehead and knocking him backwards. Garan staggered and started to fall, pulling the tribesman down with him and flipping him over his head at the last minute, sending him onto his back with a sick thud. In one swift movement, Garan was up, kneeling on the man’s chest with his dagger at his throat, despite the blood pouring down Garan’s face. Brenna gasped and the crowd roared and surged forward, eager for Garan to strike the killing blow.
“Stop!” A small, clear voice rang out above the din and the entire encampment froze, turning to look at the youth still standing next to the leader. “First blood has been drawn. The debt is paid. Father,” the boy turned to face the leader, “they have proven themselves worthy of the tribe. She has healed me and he has bested our champion. Please let them go, for me.”
The leader regarded the boy for a long moment and then turned back to the crowd. “It seems the woman has done more than heal his illness. She has softened his heart as well. Still, I am not without compassion. I can be moved.” He turned to Brenna and said, “Your man has fought with skill and honor for you this day. The toll has been paid. You are free to go.”
Garan stood at that, sheathing his sword and dagger and helping his opponent to his feet. They clapped each other on the back as the crowd tittered its approval and moved off, leaving them alone with the leader and his son. As Garan drew closer, Brenna could see that the blood all over Garan’s face and neck was coming from a small cut on an egg-sized lump growing in the middle of his forehead. She reached for her pack to find something to clean up his wound, but he stopped her, shouldering his own pack and encouraging her to head for the gate.