BtQC-Chapters 35 and 36
Cold. Deep, bone-chilling cold that seeped into every fiber of her being. She had never been so cold, or in so much pain. She hurt everywhere, the worst of it in her head, her shoulder, her hip, her wrists and ankles. She tried to blink to clear her vision but found she could only open one eye, and when she did the world spun and heaved, causing her to retch violently. She was lying on her side in the dark, it seemed, but when she tried to move her limbs and sit up, she found that her wrists and ankles were bound. Lifting her head brought on another wave of retching and when it was finished, she lay still, her thoughts filled with despair and her misery complete. She tried in vain to remember what had happened, but could only recall leaving the Abbey en route to Locallen, nothing more. She had obviously been waylaid by someone, but whom? And where was her pack with its precious cargo?
There was the sound of metal scraping against stone and then the click of boots walking toward her. Someone grabbed her arm, hauling her upright and causing her to cry out, another wave of retching wracking through her body. When she had finished, a rough hand grasped her chin, tilting her face upwards, which sent another pulse of pain and nausea through her. She blinked, trying to focus the one eye that would open and gasped when she realized that it was Victice who held her captive.
“You’re still alive. Even better,” he said, his eyes glittering in the dark. Cold fear gripped Brenna again as she realized that she was completely helpless before him, bound hand and foot and without a weapon.
“Where am I? Why have you done this?”
“You are evil and must be stopped. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“What? What are you talking about? Victice, untie me.”
“No, you will stay as you are. You are cunning but you will not fool me. I will put an end to your trickery.”
Even in the dim light, Brenna could see the madness in his eyes. “How long have you held me captive?”
“Three days. Don’t worry, though, you’ll be dead soon enough. I’ve sent for Father Leonard, but he hasn’t arrived yet, so I will have to fetch him myself.”
Three days? A tiny hope sprang to life inside Brenna. Garan would be looking for her! “They will come for me, Victice.”
“You will be dead before they even realize you are missing. Everyone knows you’ve gone to the harvest festival at that heathen Abbey, and won’t be back for a week. No matter, though. When Father Leonard comes, I will break the glamor you’ve cast upon him and he will see that I am indeed fit to be king.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve cast no glamor upon anyone.”
“Don’t lie to me, witch! I will be king!” he roared, his face just inches from hers and spittle spraying from his lips. He stood suddenly then, backing away and pacing before her, glancing at her warily. “Ah, but you are clever. You almost got me there, didn’t you? At least you saved me the trouble of having to burn down your entire filthy Abbey, though. I’ll grant you that. Burning one witch will be much easier than burning an entire compound full of them.”
Burning? Blessed Goddess, he was completely mad! She fought down her rising panic, struggling to think clearly, to stall for time, to find a way to escape. “Victice, where have you taken me?”
He smiled at her then, almost indulgently, but kept pacing. “Here is the proof that the One God smiles upon my endeavor. I come upon you alone, in the dark, just hours from my estate. The One God has delivered you directly into my hands without so much as a struggle. Can you not see how this is my destiny? And when the world is rid of you, when I have ended your unholy influence upon all those under your control, I will ascend the throne triumphant, truly anointed by the One God. None will challenge my right to rule the land.” He strode to the door then, opening it a crack and calling, “Yvette!”
Yvette entered the room, pointedly avoiding making eye contact. Brenna was struck by how tired and worn Yvette looked, her eyes smudged with dark circles and her lips colorless. Brenna knew she had been drinking the tea as well, and was disturbed to see how quickly it seemed to be working on her. “Blessed Goddess, please let Alamara have been successful in avoiding drinking any more of it,” she thought.
“Any word from Father Leonard?”
“No. I don’t think he’s coming, Viccy. What do we do?”
“Trust in me, my love. He will come. I will see to it myself.”
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“You wait here for my return and get better. You will need your health when you are my queen.” He kissed her forehead lightly and turned to leave. “And see that you stay away from her,” he added, nodding in Brenna’s direction, “so that she does not cast a glamour upon you as well.”
Victice strode from the room, leaving them alone. Yvette finally looked down at Brenna, her expression a mixture of smug satisfaction and unease at the condition of the captive. She coughed weakly and shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable but unwilling to leave.
“Do you need some water or something?” Yvette asked finally.
“A drink of water would be wonderful.” Yvette left the room, and returned almost immediately, a cup of water in her hands. She held it to Brenna’s lips and Brenna drank it down gratefully, surprised at the girl’s kindness. When she’d finished, she looked up at Yvette and said gently, “You’ve been drinking the Baron’s tea, haven’t you?”
Yvette sat back on her heels and crossed her arms defensively, but made no move to leave. “So what if I have? He said I could have some.”
“It is poisonous. He killed King Alfonse with it and now he is trying to kill the Queen as well. And you too, if you are drinking it.”
“You lie!” She spat the words out, but they had no force. Brenna knew she suspected the same thing and pressed on.
“You know it is true, Yvette. You didn’t get sick until you started drinking the tea, did you?” As the realization dawned on Yvette, a look of horror slowly came over her face. “The Baron encouraged you to fix the tea for Her Majesty so that you would be blamed for her death, should anyone discover the treachery. And if you were to die as well, so much the better for him.” Yvette’s expression was growing more and more shocked, and Brenna pressed on. “Think about it, Yvette. He has already killed the king and is trying to kill the Queen. He will stop at nothing to gain the throne. Your life is worthless to him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was plotting to get rid of Victice as well.”
Yvette sprang to her feet suddenly, backing away from Brenna with a look of terror. “No, you lie! Viccy said not to talk to you, that you would try to trick me and cast a spell over me.”
“That’s not true, Yvette. I am a priestess and a healer. I can help you and Queen Alamara. I have found a way to cure the sickness the tea causes, but I can’t do that if I am Victice’s captive. Help me escape and I will heal you.”
Yvette chewed on her lip, considering. “I can’t do that. Viccy’s men are all over the estate. They will catch you before you reach the hedge row, especially in your condition. And Viccy will know that I’ve helped you. He won’t make me his queen.”
“If you are not healed, you will be dead before you can be queen.”
Yvette gave an odd little squeak then and blinked back tears. She wore the most pitiful expression Brenna had ever seen. “I don’t want to die, but I cannot help you escape. I can do something, though.” She turned and fled through the doorway before Brenna could answer.
Brenna closed her eyes in despair, feeling miserable and helpless. From the pain in her head and her dizziness and nausea, she surmised that suffered a head injury of some kind, which she knew could have serious consequences. She was also blind in one eye and bound hand and foot on a cold, damp, stone floor. Could her situation get any more bleak? There was a rumble of thunder off in the distance which only reflected Brenna’s mood and the ominous situation she found herself in.
She dozed off and on, not knowing how long she waiting in her prison cell, until a sharp pain in her side woke her. It was Victice again, standing over her and nudging her roughly with the toe of his boot. “Still alive, I see. Don’t die on me just yet,” he said, using a small knife to cut the strap binding her ankles and yanking her to her feet. She reeled against him, her legs refusing to support her weight, but his cruel grip on her arm kept her from falling and he half pulled, half dragged her through the door and up a short flight of stairs to the outside. The day was dark, overcast and stormy, with rain-swollen clouds overhead threatening rain, but Brenna squinted against the light and stumbled along on feet that refused to cooperate. She was still trying to focus her vision when they arrived before a small hill and a knot of soldiers. She started to call out to them for help, when Victice spoke. “You see, Father? Just as I said. I have captured the witch.”
Brenna strained to look around and saw Father Leonard in the crowd, his face slowly changing from annoyed self-importance to shock and then fear. “By the One God, Victice, what have you done?” he demanded, an incredulous look on his face.
“I have captured the witch and will put an end to her entrapment and influence over you and everyone else,” Victice said. “Then you will see that I truly am fit to rule the kingdom, for I am powerful enough to withstand this harbinger of the Old Ways, even when everyone else is too weak to do so.” He pulled Brenna forward again, and she saw to her horror that the small hill they were headed toward was actually a large pile of firewood. She knew then what he intended.
“Father Leonard, by all the gods, help me!” she called, but Father Leonard just stood with his mouth agape, grappling with this evidence of Victice’s madness and afraid to intervene lest he himself bear the brunt of it. Victice hauled her to the top of the wood pile where a single pole stood upright and he lashed Brenna to it tightly despite her struggles.
Victice descended the wood pile, coming to a triumphant stop directly in front of Father Leonard. “Well, Father, what are you waiting for? I’m sure there is some formal ritual or prayer that must be performed before we set her ablaze. Start your incantations!” A flash of lightning followed shortly after by a crack of thunder not too far in the distance punctuated his words and he smiled, the madness glowing in his countenance.
“Yes, Sir Victice, of course … well, you know … there are steps to be taken … important steps … that must be performed in a specific order … in a specific way … before you can undertake something as … as … important … as this …”
“Then begin them at once!”
“Yes … well … these things take time, you see. We cannot just rush into this. The holy texts are very specific about how … these things … are executed. We must be sure not to anger the One God …”
Victice turned to Father Leonard, his face full of cold fury. “I am the embodiment of the One God. I am the One God come to the world. Perform your ritual or face my wrath.”
Father Leonard gasped and shrank away. Victice reached for him, then stayed his hand, a look of utmost contempt on his face. “And you call yourself the spiritual leader of the populace,” Victice spat, turning away. “Light the fire,” he commanded and a few of the soldiers moved toward the edges of the pile, working flint and steel to ignite the wood.
As tiny flickers of flame caught around the edges of the pile, Brenna closed her eyes and fought to still her mind. She called out to the Goddess with every fiber of her being, knowing that she would soon die and wanting to cross into the Summerland with dignity. She asked for protection and blessings upon the priestesses of the Abbey, both at Streestown and Charcond, and for Alamara, whom she loved like a sister. Finally, she focused on Garan and their love for one another. With her heart and mind filled with peace, she began to chant the ancient songs of crossing.
A deafening crash of thunder and lightning shook the ground and lit up the sky directly overhead. The soldiers and Father Leonard huddled together, thoroughly frightened, while Victice threw his head back and flung his outstretched arms toward the heavens, roaring with triumph. The sky opened then, and torrents of rain poured down, soaking everyone and licking at the flames crawling slowly up the wood pile toward Brenna’s feet and legs. The thunder and lightning continued its assault as everyone ran for cover except Victice, who stood near the strongest flames, shaking his fist at the sky and laughing maniacally.
“No!” It was a single word, shouted from across the yard, but it seemed to freeze time and space. Brenna opened her eyes to see Garan rushing toward her. He was clad in armor and surrounded by armed men, and as she watched they clashed headlong into Victice’s soldiers, engaging furiously in battle. Garan blocked a charge by one attacker, spinning away and shoving the man toward another as he continued forward, his eyes locked on Brenna.
Victice turned in time to see Garan rushing toward the pyre and moved to intercept him, his sword drawn and a look of fury on his face. Brenna watched helplessly as they hacked and slashed, both intent on killing the other. The rain had extinguished all of the flames except for one, which was directly in front of her and growing rapidly despite the storm. She turned her gaze back to Garan, changing her chant to one of protection for him, determined that her last thoughts would be of the love they shared and her last sight would be of his face, when another explosion of thunder and lightning shook the ground, blinding and deafening her temporarily. When her senses returned, she saw Victice lying on the ground, a smoldering hole in the middle of his chest and a look of disbelief on his face, frozen forever in death. Garan lie on the ground a few feet from Victice, but he stirred and rose to his feet, sprinting toward Brenna.
He was at her side in a heartbeat, clawing at her bonds and calling her name. She collapsed into his arms as he untied her, bruised, bloodied and drenched to the skin, but otherwise unharmed. The flame that had threatened her moments before was nothing but wet ashes and a tiny wisp of smoke now, having been thoroughly extinguished by the sheets of rain that still fell around them as Garan lifted her into his arms and carried her inside.
He cradled her in his arms, repeating her name and gently wiping her face with his hand. He kissed her desperately, tenderly and she kissed him back, tasting blood and soot. His fingers were smudged with blood where he’d touched her face, and she realized suddenly that she could see out of both eyes, the one having been encrusted with blood from the wound on her head. He kept saying her name, rocking her in his arms and thanking the gods that she was alive and safe, and she finally reached up to touch his cheek, to calm him and reassure him that she was alright.
“I knew you’d come,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have found you if not for Yvette.”
“Yvette?” She looked past Garan to Yvette, standing a little ways off, her face awash with a mixture of sadness and relief. She coughed then and left them alone.