BtQC – Chapters 13 and 14
The rest of their journey passed in much the same way. They traveled during the day, the passage up the mountains through the pass going slower than their trek along the foothills, and spent their nights wrapped in each others’ arms. Brenna knew now that they were soulbound and she tried not to dwell on what would happen when they arrived at Locallen. When they saw the occasional traveler as they passed through the mountains, Brenna always inquired after the king. She learned that he was gravely ill but had not yet crossed and that many physicians and healers had come to treat him, only to be turned away by the queen. Knights, barons and other nobles from all over the kingdom were making their way to Locallen in anticipation of the king’s passing and some intimated that there would be a scramble for control of the throne upon Alfonse’s death since he had no heirs from either Sonnette or Alamara. Garan scowled at that but said nothing. Brenna worried about what might happen to her friend.
The sun was low in the sky as they reached the mountain summit. They broke through the trees as they rounded a bend, and the entire coastal plain all the way to the sea was there below them. Brenna could see lush green forest down the side of the mountain give way to rolling farmland, with the city of Locallen at the land’s edge and the castle perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. She’d never traveled to the coast before, and the sight of the deep blue-green water stretching off into distance as far as she could see brought tears of joy to her eyes. It was spectacular. Garan seemed moved by the sight of it too, and he placed his arm around her waist, pulling her to stand next to him. A gentle gust of wind, damp and cool, ruffled Brenna’s cloak, so different from the dry, warm winds of the valley and desert they’d just traversed.
The last few days were passed mostly in silence, each wrapped in their own thoughts. Garan grew more quiet and withdrawn as they neared the coast and Brenna found herself torn between wanting to hurry to the castle to fulfill her duty to the king and wanting to delay their arrival so she would have more time with Garan. She wanted to ask him why he would not enter the city and what would become of him after they parted ways at the gates, but whenever she tried to broach the subject he cut her off.
It was midday when they arrived at Locallen, the massive stone wall and heavy iron-bound gates towering ominously over Brenna’s head as she stood with Garan beside the main road watching scores of people passing in and out of the city. There were farmers with laden wagons and livestock, merchants with handcarts full of wares, armor-clad soldiers and travelers like themselves, all going about their business and oblivious to Brenna’s turmoil. There were so many people and so much noise! Brenna felt a little dazzled by the spectacle of it, and wished for the thousandth time that Garan was going with her to the castle, which rose in the distance at the other end of the road.
When she could stand their silence no longer, she turned to Garan. “Well, I suppose I should be on my way up to the castle. Are you sure you won’t come with me? I could use the company.”
“No, I swore off this accursed place years ago. It’s a straight shot up the road to the castle. You’ll be fine.” He turned to face her, his expression unreadable.
His seeming indifference stung and Brenna felt hurt and angry. She thought she meant more to him than that, that their growing relationship was stronger than some slight he’d suffered ages back. She rummaged in her pack and pulled out a small purse, pressing it into his hands so he wouldn’t see her looming tears. “Here is your payment, then. Thank you for your service.”
She turned to go but he caught her hand, the now-familiar tingle between them causing her tears to spill unbidden. He smiled that bemused smile she knew so well and handed her purse back to her. “Keep it, love. I’ve had a grand adventure with you and that is worth more than all the gold in the world. I’d not trade these past few weeks with you for anything.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her tenderly.
Brenna fought back sobs and the tears coursed down her face. “Oh, Garan, please come with me. We are soulbound, can’t you see? My heart will break without you!”
Garan cupped her face in his hands, gently wiping her tears away. “I … I cannot,” he said, a sudden look of anguish in his eyes tearing at Brenna’s heart. “I will promise you this, though. I will wait for you.” He held her gaze, his eyes boring into hers, determined to convince her. “There is a town a days’ walk north of here called Charcond. I will wait for you at the inn there, however long it takes. Come to me there, after the king has crossed and your duty is done.” He pulled her close and kissed her again, deeply, desperately, hungrily.
“I will,” Brenna said as their lips parted. She could see Garan’s unshed tears, and she rose up on tiptoe to gently kiss each eyelid and the new scar on his forehead before placing her hands on the top of his head in benediction. “May the Goddess bless and protect you while we are apart, my love.”
Garan gathered her hands in his, kissed them gently and turned, striding off down the northern road. Brenna watched him go until he was out of sight, then started in the direction of the castle.
Brenna arrived at the castle, unsure of how to proceed. Unlike the town gates which stood open during the day, the castle gates were closed and she didn’t see anyone around to open them for her. It seemed absurd to knock on such a massive door, but as she raised her hand to do so, a voice called down to her from the guardhouse, “State your business!”
Brenna jumped and looked around, trying to see who had addressed her. A helmeted guard frowned down at her from an upstairs window, waiting for her reply. “I am Brenna Samuels, Priestess of Streestown Abbey. I have been summoned by Her Majesty to attend the king.”
“Her Majesty has ordered that all physicians and healers are to be turned away,” the guard said.
“Yes, but Her Majesty has sent for me specifically,” Brenna insisted. “Please send word to the queen that Brenna from Streestown has come as she has requested.”
The guard moved away from the window and spoke to someone in the tower. Brenna waited in the hot afternoon sun for several minutes before the massive door made a grinding creak and swung outward a crack, leaving a gap just wide enough for Brenna to pass through. She thanked the guards on either side of the door and crossed the courtyard with them to the keep, passing through yet another set of heavy doors and into a dark, cool hall.
The doors closed behind her with finality and Brenna stood for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. She was in a great hall at one end of a long, carpeted aisle that led to a dais and two carved, wooden thrones. One throne was empty, but the other was occupied by a stunningly beautiful woman in a gleaming golden gown. Her long dark hair was unbound about her shoulders and an ornate jewel-encrusted crown encircled her head. Brenna’s mouth hung ajar as she recognized her friend, sitting regally upon the throne and gazing down the aisle at Brenna. Queen Alamara rose then, and started down the steps toward Brenna, her pace quickening to a run as she moved to embrace the priestess, a gaggle of guards, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting trailing after her.
“Oh, Brenna! It is you! I am so glad to see you,” Alamara said, clasping Brenna in her arms in a tight hug.
Brenna squealed with joy, embracing her friend. “Alamara, it is so good to see you!”
Alamara held Brenna at arm’s length, looking her up and down. “Look at you! You haven’t changed a bit since we were sneaking off to steal hand pies from Mother’s windowsill,” she said.
Brenna blushed a bit and was suddenly painfully aware of her dusty, travel-worn cloak and the disapproving stares of the court around her. She dropped to her knees before the Queen with an embarrassed, “Your Majesty,” hoping to correct her impropriety.
Alamara pulled her to her feet. “Brenna, it’s me. You’ve no need to be so formal with me. We’re practically family. Besides, you are a priestess of the Abbey. I should be bowing to you.” Alamara had slipped her arm in Brenna’s and was walking back up the aisle toward the thrones.
Brenna smiled gratefully at her friend, marveling at how easily they had fallen back into their old camaraderie, as if they’d only been apart a few days rather than twenty years or more. Alamara was asking her about the Abbey and about her journey to Locallen when a liveried servant cleared his throat to get the queen’s attention.
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but those who would seek audience with you are at hand.”
“Yes, of course. Bid them enter.” She turned to a young servant girl standing behind the throne. “Torrie, please show Brenna to her rooms and attend to her needs while she is with us here at Locallen,” she said. Turning back to Brenna, she smiled at her again. “I’ve made rooms available to you near our private chambers, dear. Make yourself comfortable and we’ll talk more at supper tonight.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Brenna said, bowing slightly in deference to her friend before following Torrie out a side door and down a narrow passage toward the rooms set aside for her use.