The Last Lantern

Chapter 23 - Stay or Go


@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009


Phillip woke to the smell of breakfast wafting through the cavern. People were up and moving, some preparing to leave, from the look of things, others seemed settled in. From what he could tell this cave was a semi-permanent, if not permanent safehouse for the rebels.

Rebels. He wasn’t exactly sure why they were fighting, or what motivated them. He'd gotten that the proper king, Prince Stefan’s father, had been defeated in an uprising and the winner had now taken control of the North, but .. Well, Phillip had never paid much attention to politics.

The folks here seemed to be loyal to Stefan. And he could see why. Stefan was, well, arresting. He was handsome and vibrant and full of confidence and seemed to have a grasp of things and how to move people. And to know people, even the most uninspiring people, the ones who tended the horses and cooked the meals and changed the chamberpots. Even to them, Phillip noticed, Stefan was attentive, polite, friendly. Phillip tried to picture his father, Sir Reginald, even noticing the tweenie, never mind wishing her a good morrow. No, he doubted his father would even recognize their butler if he met him on the street, never mind smile at the maids who scurried out of his way when he stalked through the house looking as if he were ready to put a sword through anyone who dared speak to him.

Was this what leading was about? Inspiring confidence, acknowledging worth, even in the lowest of your people? It certainly seemed to instill loyalty.

Phillip looked up with a start to realize Brother Vaal had dropped onto his haunches beside where he sat.

“Feeling better?” Vaal asked, assessing Phillip from head to toes. The way the priest’s eyes travelled over you was sort of like having him look under your skin and into your mind rather than just at you. Vaal was by far the most confusing person Phillip had ever known. Well, baring Molly.

“Yes. I’m sorry I didn't stay at the Boar when you told me to. I thought... Well, obviously I was wrong,” Phillip muttered a bit embarrassed now, remembering how worried he'd been about Molly’s safety. It was odd to him that he even cared about her. She seemed to barely notice his existence. He wasn't more than a tweenie to her.

“She does so notice you,” Brother Vaal said as he took a cup of tea from a woman who was walking around with cups and a pot for refills.

Phillip flushed. He hated that Vaal seemed able to read his mind. He wondered if he could read anyone else’s.

“Yes, although with some it is easier than with others,” Vaal replied aloud to the question Phillip had only thought. “Prince Stefan now,” Vaal added, nodding at the man in question, “he’s had training. Required of many, as you can imagine. Can’t have just everyone knowing your plans. Hard to surprise an enemy if anyone in the vicinity can read them straight from your mind.”

“So people can learn to shield their thoughts, even from ... are there many folks who can do that? Only priests, or...” Phillip asked.

“Do what? Oh, read your thoughts. Not only priests. And not all priests. It is my particular talent. Perhaps it is why the Bastard grabbed me up in the first place to serve him.”

“You don't sound very happy about it,” Phillip observed taking the cup held out to him and sipping.

Vaal frowned. “As I said when we first spoke, I did not choose this life. I suppose there is a certain amount of resentment given that.”

Phillip nodded. There were a lot of things about his own life he hadn’t chosen. He quite often felt a bit resentful about them.

“I thought you weren’t allowed to choose sides, that you Black Priests stood between. Or that’s how it was explained to me,” Phillip added.

“Depends how you define that, I suppose. Between,” Vaal replied. “I do not fight for Stefan. Nor do I fight for King Octavian. I’ll serve my God with either sitting on the throne. But I am allowed to intervene to stop atrocities or other acts that offend the Heretic. The men who sought out Lady Molly... We didn’t dare risk her being harmed.”

“But why would they bother her?” Phillip asked. “That’s what I don’t understand. Wasn't she safe in Kings Cross? Why take her from there since she was there with her father’s own people.”

“They’d had reports,” Vaal replied. “Credible reports. There’s always been Northern agents watching over her for Bryce. Making certain she was safe and happy. A threat to her was always a possibility. Remote as it might be... Even so, when Bryce ... He’s Prince Stefan’s closest advisor and confidant. King Octavian would have paid dearly to have control of her in order to distract Bryce if not limit his involvement. Any advantage in a war, you see.”

“Would they have actually,” Phillip swallowed, “harmed Molly?”

“Oh yes. She’d have been killed in the end. Still might be despite all our efforts.”

Phillip stared at Vaal, his mouth dropping open.

“They’ll kill you too, you know, if you stay,” Vaal pointed out. “Well, they’ll try. You’ll be just another rebel and they want them all dead.” Vaal regarded Phillip for a bit then added, “I’ll arrange for someone to escort you south. If that’s what you want.”

If that’s what he wanted, Phillip thought. Really, he had no idea what he wanted. He’d killed a man. Could he just go home and be the meek youngest son and listen to his father berate him day after day? That didn't sound like a very pleasant prospect. Still.. He had a home and he loved his brothers and his mother. He could tolerate his sister, even with her endless obsessing on beaus, balls and gowns.

“It changes you,” Vaal commented in light of Phillip’s silence. “Killing. War. It makes you reassess what you deem important, what you’ll accept, what you dream of.”

“I’m not much of a warrior. I wouldn’t last long in an army,” Phillip finally said.

Vaal nodded agreement. “True. Perhaps, although I think you’re stronger than you know. But if you don't aspire to becoming a warrior, there are other things you could do. However, even if you did other things, generally speaking you’d end up fighting, if only to defend yourself from others. That’s something you need to think on.”

Phillip watched Vaal walk away. He noticed how the others looked up as he past, watching the priest a bit warily, as if he were a wild thing and they didn’t dare take him for granted.

Phillip sighed. Why couldn’t he be more like Molly? She always seemed to know exactly what she wanted, and to go after it, heart and soul united in the quest. He felt he might be strong enough to fight for what he wanted himself, but at the moment, he had no idea what that something might actually be.



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