BtQC – Chapters 23 and 24
The third day after the king’s death dawned cloudy and oppressive. A summer storm threatened off the coast, making the air heavy and humid and still. Brenna and Alamara entered the Great Hall, surprised to find Machieve and many of his courtiers already assembled there with a man Brenna had not seen before. As Alamara took her place beside the king’s bier, the man rose and crossed the hall toward them. He was small and round, and dressed in the vestments of a clergyman of the One God. Something about his manner made Brenna dislike him immediately, but she composed her features into a neutral expression as he approached.
“Your Majesty, I am Father Leonard,” he said, extending his hand as if expecting the queen to kiss it. When she did not, be withdrew it and continued. “I am here to conduct the funeral rites for King Alfonse, may the One God bless him. When shall we begin?”
“I beg your pardon,” Brenna said.
Father Leonard turned to her, a forced smile on his lips. “I am addressing the Queen.”
Brenna started to retort, but Alamara interrupted her. “Father Leonard, it is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard so many things about you. This is Brenna Samuels, a priestess of Streestown Abbey and one of my dearest friends. She attended His Majesty in his final days and as he crossed. She is performing the funeral rites for the king.” Alamara smiled and spoke pleasantly, but there was a steely undertone that belied a strength Brenna had come to see more and more in Alamara’s manner since she had arrived at the castle.
“But it is the third day after his death, is it not? The holy word of the One God clearly states that the deceased must be buried within three days.”
“Yes, but we will hold the funeral rites and burial two days’ hence, at the full moon,” Brenna said. “As a follower of the Old Ways, I think His Majesty would approve.”
“Oh, but that is where you are wrong, priestess. Did you not know that the king had converted to the One God? Queen Sonnette made sure of it, may the One God bless her,” Father Leonard said with a smug expression on his face.
“That is surprising to learn,” Brenna said, “especially since the One God was not present at the king’s crossing. The Goddess and her warrior cohort were there to welcome and escort him into the Summerland.”
“Blasphemy!” gasped Father Leonard, clearly shocked.
Alamara intervened, aware of the crowd of curious onlookers growing around them. “Perhaps a compromise can be reached,” she said. “Father Leonard, would you do me the honor of conducting the funeral rites of your faith for the king today, here in the Great Hall? And Brenna,” she hurried to continue, seeing the look on Brenna’s face, “it would please me greatly if you would conduct the funeral and burial rites of your faith at the full moon, as we originally discussed.”
Brenna started to disagree but thought better of it and said, “Of course, Your Majesty.” She eyed Alamara carefully as Father Leonard bustled off to Machieve and his cohorts to begin the preparations for the first funeral. She knew that what her friend had done was politically correct and expedient, but she didn’t like it. Brenna was growing tired of the political maneuverings and thought again of Garan, wondering if he would come and hoping he would return in time for the funeral.
As the time grew near for the first funeral, Brenna went upstairs and changed into her more formal priestess’ gown. She had never attended rites for the One God, and she was curious as to what they would entail. She had studied the precepts of the religion and many others, of course, as all the women at the Abbey were required to do, but had never even met anyone of the faith until she had left the Abbey on her journey. While she didn’t care for Father Leonard, she knew that he was but one representative of the faith as a whole and she looked forward with interest to observing the similarities and differences between his funerary rites and those of the Old Ways.
The ceremony was to begin at eventide, and Brenna arrived at the doorway to the Great Hall just beforehand. The hall was filled with mourners and Brenna could see Alamara seated in the front row, in a place of honor. She decided to just slip into the hall and find an empty seat near the back, but before she could do so Father Leonard appeared in the hallway behind her, dressed in richly embroidered robes of crimson and gold and escorted by a dozen or more similarly clad officiants. “You are not welcome here, priestess,” he said, eyeing her up and down with disapproval. There is no place for your unorthodox ways in the House of the One God.”
“I am here as a simple mourner, not in my official capacity as priestess. You would deny me the opportunity to mourn my king?”
“Are you here to renounce your heathen ways and join us in the worship of the One God?”
“No, that I will never do,” Brenna replied.
“Then you are not welcome here. You will have your chance to mourn the king during your unholy rites under the full moon.”
“And all those assembled here, they are all followers of the One God?” Brenna retorted, struggling to remain calm and even.
“If they are not now, they will be soon,” Father Leonard said, turning away from her and striding down the aisle toward the front of the Great Hall, his attendants closing the door and falling into place behind him.
The day of full moon dawned clear and warm. There had been no word from Briance or Garan, and Brenna was growing concerned. Garan had said that it was only a days’ travel to Charcond from the castle, so surely they would have returned by now. What could be keeping them? Baron Machieve, Father Leonard and their cronies seemed to be ever-present these days, occupying much of the queen’s time and attention. Alamara was gracious and polite, of course, but Brenna worried that their constant presence heralded more than just concern for the queen in her time of grief.
Brenna looked out her chamber window across the castle grounds. She could see that the ancient catacombs, burial place for hundreds of previous royals, had been opened to admit its latest occupant. The servants scurried about, placing flowers and torches around the area. Brenna turned back to her desk, finishing her preparations for the ceremony that evening. She had officiated many last rites during her time as a priestess of the Abbey, but never for a king. She paid attention to every nuance, both in deference to Alfonse and Alamara and because she was sure her every deed and word would be scrutinized in minute detail by Father Leonard and the others. It had to be perfect, or at least as close as she could get it.
At nightfall, Brenna went to the queen’s chamber, to walk with her down to the site of the ritual. Alamara wore a simple, unadorned gown of silver silk that complimented Brenna’s formal, midnight blue robes perfectly. It was a wise choice, appropriately elegant for a mourning queen without too much ornamentation and frippery. It was also a subtle nod to both the old and new ways, something Alamara was doing more and more these days, Brenna realized. She marveled at her friend’s wisdom and grace once again as they took their places amongst the assembled mourners to begin the ritual.
Brenna closed her eyes, turned to the east and began the ancient chant to raise the energy. The familiar thrum swelled and grew within her, and as she raised her arms to cast the circle, the moon crested over the top of the castle, bathing the grounds in its icy light. Many of those assembled gasped at the beauty of it, and Brenna threw back her head, basking for a moment in the thrill of energy coursing through her body before looking at Alamara. The queen stood with her eyes closed, a look of peaceful happiness on her beautiful face and her gown seeming to shimmer and glow with cold fire in the moonlight. She was a magnificent sight and Brenna smiled. Alamara may have left the Abbey over two decades ago, but the Old Ways were still strong within her, it seemed.
Brenna turned to the funeral bier where Alfonse lay, speaking the ancient, familiar words of the rite. She could sense the Goddess and her cohort around them, observing and approving of the work and when it came time for the interment of the king, Brenna felt the Goddess swell within her as she laid her hands upon his body, bestowing a final blessing. At her signal, the bier was moved into the catacombs and placed into the vault that had been prepared for it, and then the heavy, marble door was closed and sealed. Alamara flinched almost imperceptibly at that, but grasped Brenna’s hand for strength.
Brenna turned back to the assembled mourners, lowering the circle of energy to end the rite. As she sang the final chant, she scanned the crowd, and was mildly surprised to find Baron Machieve hovering near the back. As Brenna and Alamara lead the procession back to the castle, he moved to intercept them, but just before they reached him Sir Briance appeared at the queen’s side, stepping in front of Machieve and offering her his arm. She took it gratefully and Machieve scowled, falling into step with Brenna behind the queen.
“I would have a word with you, priestess,” he said.
“Now, Baron? Can it wait until we are inside, out of the damp?”
“Now, if you please.” He stopped, subtly grasping her elbow so that she stopped as well. The crowd following behind streamed around them, some looking at them curiously as they passed.
“I am surprised that you would be so forward, Baron. What will Father Leonard say when he learns that you have insisted on being alone in the moonlight with an Abbey priestess?”
“He will be pleased to learn that I have taken the initiative to discover your intent, priestess. Now that the king is dead and buried, your work here is done. When will you return to your duties at Streestown Abbey?”
“I am at the Queen’s command and will stay until Her Majesty no longer has need of my company,” Brenna said. “Although,” she added, “I must confess that court life has begun to grow on me. I hope that Her Majesty will see fit to let me stay for awhile longer.” Machieve squirmed a bit at Brenna’s smug smile. “Were you hoping to be rid of me so soon?”
“Not at all, priestess. It’s just that as an advisor to Her Majesty, I like to be apprised of all situations.”
“Well then, as soon as Her Majesty sees fit to inform us of her plans for me, we will all know. Good evening, Baron.” Brenna turned and headed back toward the castle.
“I would be very careful if I were you, Brenna Samuels. The world is quite different outside the walls of your Abbey,” Machieve called after her.
“Indeed it is, Baron. May the Goddess protect us all.”
Brenna entered the Great Hall and hurried to the front. She was relieved to see Alamara seated on her throne with Sir Briance standing beside her, speaking with her earnestly. “Sir Briance, did you find Garan? Will he return?” Brenna asked. Noticing Alamara’s bemused glance, she added, “Forgive me for interrupting, Your Majesty.”
“I did indeed find him, priestess, at the inn at Charcond, as you said he would be. I informed him of the king’s passing and of His Majesty’s request that he return to protect the queen, and Garan assured me that he would come. I left him there to make his final preparations, expecting to see him at the ritual this evening. Surely he is en route, even now.”
“Until he comes, I am safe under the watchful eye of you two,” Alamara smiled, “and I think I will to bed. I am exhausted from all these official events in honor of the king’s passing, and after the Grand Tournament tomorrow, I would like nothing more than to hide in my rooms and sleep for a week.”
“No one would begrudge you that, Your Majesty,” Brenna said.
A sad smile touched Alamara’s lips. “No, there will be no such luxury for me. The duties of the crown weigh heavy, Brenna, and I cannot indulge my desire to wallow in self-pity and sloth, especially now.” She nodded in the direction of Baron Machieve, who had entered the Great Hall and joined his supporters. “I am looking forward to the tournament tomorrow, however. Alfonse loved the excitement and pageantry of it and would be pleased that we are holding one in his memory, I think.” She turned back to Briance. “The hour is late, Briance. You are welcome to stay here tonight rather than travel back to your estate.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I will accept your kind offer. I am not as young as I used to be and will need plenty of rest to be an effective challenger tomorrow.”
Alamara offered him her hand and he took it, bowing low and kissing it with reverence. “Will you go up with me, Brenna?” she said.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Brenna replied, and they headed upstairs to retire for the night.
As Brenna lay in her bed, her thoughts were once again filled with Garan. Where was he? Why hadn’t he returned with Briance? She reached out with her mind until she felt the familiar connection. Yes, he was still there, but why wasn’t he here, at the Queen’s side and more importantly, with her? Her body ached to hear his voice, to feel his touch. Would it be awkward to be with him again, knowing what she knew now about he and Alamara so many years ago. Did he have feelings for the queen then? Did he still have feelings for her now? Alamara had assured her that she had felt nothing but a harmless, girlish flirtation for her protector, but Brenna wasn’t so sure. She tossed and turned anxiously throughout the night, her dreams disquiet.