THE howl cutting through the underbrush reminded Lochan that another night in the forest was a bad idea. The howl probably belonged to something that would gladly eat him. He spotted the temple walls jutting out from the leaf cover and a relieved sigh percolated out of him. It had been a two-day ride to get to the mountain temple and the town that surrounded it. Even with his gaited mare and her rocking-chair walk, Lochan’s back and legs throbbed painfully.
No one stopped him at the town’s border. Lochan sighed, thinking it unwise to leave a town this size unguarded. Maybe he had spent too much time in the Crown City. He grew up with tall walls that had made him feel safe while attending the military academy.
Slowly riding past buildings, looking for the quickest way to the temple in a maze of roads, Lochan tried to convince himself that graduation was only a week past. The excitement of getting his first orders had kept him up nights imagining watching over the royals, maybe a young princess or a wayward prince. Even minor royalty had its allure. A sick feeling had weighed heavy as the mountains around him when he opened the envelope and learned he was assigned to guard an Elaheh priest.
Lochan had never even considered that possibility. Irreligious, he didn’t even know what made the Elaheh priests different. He only knew they were like royalty among the priesthood. Studying the sheer granite walls of the temple stabbing at the tree tops, Lochan thought the royal analogy was apt. The stonework glittered in the fading sun, highlighting the intricacy of the variety of carvings it bore.
He could count on one hand the times he had entered a temple. His father hadn’t believed in God, and once Lochan had been given to the military—his parents were better off with one less mouth to feed—there had been little use for prayer. There had been a military priest, but attendance to services hadn’t been mandatory. Lochan wasn’t even sure about the proper protocol for entering the grounds or who he was supposed to present himself to. His orders were very light on details. At this point, he hoped someone would see his rank brooch and the clueless expression on his face and take pity on him.
“Are you the soldier they sent from Crown City?
Looking down at the young girl who gazed at his horse with eager eyes, Lochan almost believed in God. “Yes, I am.”
“I’m Javi. I’ve been waiting for you. I’m supposed to show you to the stables, then to meet Father Deveran,” she said, her hand raising hesitantly.
Lochan knew what she wanted. He swung down off his mare, holding the horse still. “You can pet her neck.”
“Thanks, mister.” She stroked Rocker’s neck several times. “This way.”
She led him along the wall, following the slope. His eyes widened as the stables came into view. Even the academy’s buildings didn’t look as fine as the ones nestled away at the edge of the religious compound.
Two young men ran out, jogging up cautiously. “We’ll take her from here, sir,” one said.
“We’ll make sure she gets curried real good and is well fed,” the other promised.
“Thank you.” Lochan knew he wasn’t doing his due diligence. He should have checked out the stable, but he was exhausted. All he wanted was to find his new quarters and steal some sleep before he had to go meet with the Elaheh priest.
Javi tugged his sleeve. “This way.”
He followed the girl back over the sprawling grounds, past several sizable outbuildings, until they reached the temple proper. The marble steps felt slick and steep to his tired legs, and there were far too many of them. Lochan wanted to say “just take me to my bedsit first” but knew the girl probably had been given orders.
Javi pushed open the carved, wooden doors leading into the temple. Inside, the waning sun shone through the stained glass, splashing the pews with dim, multicolored light. An old man was busy lighting candles. Lochan wondered if there were evening services and if he would be expected to attend.
“Father!” Javi called out, and the old man turned toward them, smiling.
“Ah, is this the officer sent from the academy?” The priest blew out his long taper.
“I am. Captain Lochan of Clan Matters. Are you Father Deveran?”
The old man chuckled. “I could only pray to be that young again. No, I’m Father Mahon, the elder here. I’ll introduce you to Father Deveran.” The priest’s eyes squinted, deepening the lines around them. “Maybe after you’ve had time to rest and clean up a bit. I know it’s a very long trip from Crown City.”
Lochan grimaced. He knew the old man had a point, but it didn’t make him feel any less embarrassed. “Yes, I am tired and definitely in need of a bath.”
“Father Mahon.” A tall, slender man sauntered into the temple, demanding attention by his mere appearance. The vibrant deep purple of his robes spoke of his wealth and importance, but it was the long sweep of raven hair spilling to the man’s knees that Lochan couldn’t quit ogling. He’d never seen a man—or, hell, a woman—with hair that long. Lochan needed the second look to assure himself this wasn’t a flat-chested woman, given how delicate the man’s features were.
“Oh, is this my completely unnecessary guard?” The man swept down the aisle, eyes the color of jet scanning Lochan.
Shifting uneasily, Lochan wished he had insisted on seeing a shower before letting Javi bring him here. “Unnecessary?” He couldn’t keep the bite out of his voice.
“There is a militia here,” Deveran said, frustration evident in his tone. “I can’t see I’m in any danger.”
“Father Deveran, you know Lilliana’s prophecies are rarely wrong. It wouldn’t hurt to have a better trained officer here to help out. We can’t risk you,” the old priest said, and the younger one huffed.
“Fine.” He turned back to Lochan. “I’m Father Deveran, and you are?” The young priest bowed to Lochan, hands clasped over his heart.
Lochan returned the greeting. “Captain Lochan of Clan Matters.”
“Please to meet you, Captain Matters. I wish it were under better circumstance.” The young man slung back his impressive mane. “Did they tell you about the situation?”
Lochan cast an eye at the old priest who had moved off a few paces. Javi had taken up a station at the door, no help there. He fought to mask his own frustration at the lack of information. “I’m afraid not, Father. I had a destination, a name, and a vague hint it was a protection detail and not much more.”
“Why don’t you find your new quarters while I speak to Father Mahon about the services? I can fill you in on the reasons for your presence here later.”
Lochan sighed. “Thank you, Father. I appreciate that.”
“And if you’ll forgive me, Captain, I hope your being here isn’t necessary.”
“I can understand that entirely,” Lochan replied, waving him off.
“If you will, Javi,” Deveran said dismissively.
“This way, sir.”
Lochan followed the girl, but the vision of Father Deveran stuck in his mind. There was something completely compelling about the priest. Belatedly, Lochan realized the serving girl—priestess in training?—hadn’t led him back outside to one of the outbuildings. Instead, they were heading deeper into the large temple, away from the public places for worship. “Where are you taking me?”
“You’ll be staying in Father Deveran’s wing.”
He couldn’t quite cover his surprised expression. “Not with the other soldiers?”
She glanced back at him with a cattish smile on her face. “It would be harder to attend to his needs all the way out there, sir.”
While that made sense, he couldn’t help but wonder exactly what they thought might happen to Father Deveran. Lochan saw no real advantage to anyone in harming a priest. They did, of course, have a certain amount of power within the local populace, but in the scheme of running the country, the priests had little impact. Father Deveran seemed to think Lochan’s presence was unnecessary, and he was probably right.
Javi led the way down a spacious corridor, the carpeting so thick it ate all their footfalls. Lochan felt too filthy to be in such a plush place. He was better suited to the stable. The door she opened revealed a room half the size of a first year’s barracks which housed about thirty men.
“This can’t be my room!” Lochan took a step inside. No one, not even generals, had quarters this spacious. He stared at the marvelous paint on the walls, the rich green of the forest accented by trim at floor and ceiling the hue of freshly drawn milk. Gauzy curtains hung over massive doors that were more window panes than anything else, leading out to a garden beyond.
“Usually it’s reserved for auspicious guests. The advantage is Father Deveran is just across the hall. If something happens, you won’t have to race across the compound.” Javi waved for him to follow her across the room.
He studied her for a moment then took a chance. “Do you know what they’re afraid of, Javi?”
“No, sir.” She opened an inner door. “Just that everyone is jumpy. Here, you have your own private bath. It’s a hot spring.” She pointed to an alcove. “And over there is the privy.”
Lochan couldn’t quite get his head around this place. Maybe Father Deveran was royalty after all. That would explain the luxury his guests were kept in. “I’m speechless.”
Javi giggled. “Enjoy, sir. Someone will be along later to get you when Father Deveran is ready. Don’t worry; you’ll have plenty of time. Father Deveran tends to talk a lot. He’ll be with Father Mohan for some time.”
Considering himself well warned, Lochan stripped off his travel clothes, almost wishing he could dispose of them permanently; they smelled that rank. The hot tub was a decadent luxury that Lochan thought he could have lounged in forever. He was dizzy from the heat by the time he slogged out of the water. The bed sang him a lullaby, luring him. Father Deveran would probably forgive him a nap after such a long trip.