The Last Lantern

Chapter 25 - The Pass of Sorrow

 

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009

 

Phillip Manners, huddled miserably under a cloak given to him by the rebels, wondered just how in the world he’d ended up here and now. He was riding through the Pass of Sorrow (or so Vaal had named it). He understood the name down to his very frozen bones. And down to the toes he wasn’t certain he could feel any more.

The Pass was a long narrow passageway between high cliffs. The wind whistling through it was gale force and icy cold. Snow piled up in treacherous drifts just waiting to catch the unwary horse or rider and tumble them into a cravass from which they’d never escape. The trail itself was narrow and rocky, with lose stones and icy patches. Often one side was cliff, from which rocks or avalanches could tumble down onto the trail and anyone unlucky enough to be using it at the time. The other side of the trail was often only open sky with a precipitous drop into nothingness somewhere so far below Phillip couldn't see the bottom. In other places, things were worse. There was nothing to block the wind or the driving ice crystals that struck you with stinging agonizing accuracy, penetrating even heavy woolen scarves and if not penetrating them, clinging to them, a frozen mass of ice. Even his eyelashes were coated in frozen tears.

Vaal had all three horses tied together, nose to tail, with long leads. The snow periodically fell in a blinding blizzard that restricted visibility to only a foot or so. At the moment though, Phillip could just make out the mound under snow covered furs that was Molly riding Tansy just ahead of him. He couldn't see Vaal at all. What light there was, was fading. Late in the day then. He had no idea how much further they’d have to travel, or how much further they could travel. The trail in the dark would be impossible and a sure death, he was certain.

What exactly was he doing here, he asked himself for what seemed to be the hundredth time. He could be comfortably at home. Well, at least he'd be warm and fed and have a warm bed and a mug of spiced hot wine to look forward to. Here he wondered if they’d survive the day.

Vaal had warned him. He had to admit that. Vaal had said, repeatedly, the trip wouldn't be easy. That it would be dangerous, since they didn't dare take any guards. Better to hide and draw as little attention to themselves as possible. Armed guards along was a red flag for anyone. Phillip understood that. As it was, they were supposed to be Brother Vaal and a couple of urchins he was taking to the Bastard. He felt like an urchin, true enough.

Couple that with the horrible weather, the Pass (which was never used during winter since it would be impassable - as if it weren’t nearly so now in Autumn)- and the fact that Molly didn't even want him along, and Phillip felt less than useless. It hurt that she resented him so much. He understood it, he supposed. She'd be out of a home if Lord Rosslyn died. His father might offer her a room, but it would be done resentfully and her life made as miserable as he possibly could.

Even so, he wasn't his father. He wouldn't just throw her out. But then he wouldn't be inheriting anything. He had three older siblings, all of whom would eat up whatever resources might be left over from the eldest who’d get nearly everything, anyway His choices were mostly to beg from his father and then from his brothers, take holy orders, join the military in some form or another, or ... Or... this...

Vaal, though, was not making things easier. He was tight-lipped about where they were going, or what might happen once they got Molly there. Specifically, what he, Phillip, might opt to do then. He’d probably join the Rebels. There didn't seem to be much of a choice. He doubted King Octavian would see him as anything other than a Rebel already. Even more so his own King Charles. He’d be branded a traitor if Charles found out about his activities. So choices were narrowing, based on his actions and the choices he’d already made but didn't fully understand at the time. But then, he supposed, most things in life just happened. You didn't realize you had much of a choice until it was already too late and you'd laid your foot on one specific path. Was there never any going back? Could you undo things and return to your previous existence?

But then he’d already realized he couldn't go back. He just couldn't go home and put up with being beholden to his father. It just wasn't an option he could stomach now that... Now that he'd murdered someone. Fought to the death. Blooded, as they said. It changed you, it really did. He was harder, less likely to act or think himself dependent. Less likely to just accept things, especially when it entailed just standing by to let others tell him what to do.

That was what he liked about Vaal. The priest asked. Never assumed. Never told him what to do. Just gave him his choices, clearly and concisely and waited for Phillip to choose. If there was a real choice to make, anyway. Again, most things had been obvious. Not a real choice given he had no friends, no money, nor much knowledge of the area.

Somehow he had to find a way to earn a living. The rebels seemed the least bad option at the moment. He didn't think the Bastard wanted him. He knew Molly didn't want him around.

His horse came to his own stop, Phillip having been lost in his grim thoughts. It was darker now, and snow was falling harder. Vaal was leading them off the trail, off toward a cluster of rocks nearly buried under snow. Phillip saw no sign of life around them, no tracks in the snow, but then with the wind blowing any tracks that might have been there would have been obliterated nearly immediately.

Vaal got off his horse and Phillip followed suit. He stepped forward to help Molly. She looked wide-eyed and pale. Terrified, cold, feeling alone and deserted no doubt. He wanted badly to reassure her, but stopped himself before he tried. The wind was whistling by too loudly anyway, she’d never hear him.

Vaal took the lead, and Molly and he followed close behind. Vaal tested the area in front of him with his sword, feeling for hard ground under the layers of snow.

Phillip, concentrating on leading his horse in the foot and hoofprints ahead of him, was surprised when he looked up and noticed the snow had stopped as had the wind. They were in a protected area with rock on three sides of them. Vaal stopped long enough to light a small lantern he carried and holding that aloft led them in through a narrow passage between the rocks.

A cave. Phillip had never thought a cave, dirty and empty, could look so inviting.

It had been used recently. There was a rocky ring near the middle where someone had lit a fire. And there was dry firewood piled nearby. Someone saving some for another traveler caught in the horrors of winter.

Vaal pushed the hood on his cloak off his head and looked around then down at Phillip and at Molly. “At least we’re out of the weather. We dare not go further without more light.”

Molly crumpled to the ground.

 

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