The Last Lantern
Chapter 26 - Rat Stew
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009
Molly came awake, her mouth salivating at the smell of something hot and probably tasty cooking not very far away. She opened her eyes to find herself lying on the ground, a firepit near her. The fire burned gayly, sending welcome fingers of warm air to caress her exposed cheeks. The mouth-watering smell came from a banged up and well used pot that was sitting on a hot stone near the fire. Its contents looked like stew.
She panicked for a moment and sat up, looking around wildly. She’d been wrapped tightly in furs, which brought awful thoughts about being kidnapped by Sir Donal all too readily back to her mind.
“Don’t be a baby,” someone said. “No need to jump up and get all girlish.”
Molly frowned her worst frown. It was Phillip. Of course it was Phillip. He was sitting with his back against a rock, honing a sword. His sword. That did not help her mood any at all. Why oh why wouldn’t someone let HER have one.
“You fainted,” Phillip explained. “Vaal carried you in here. That’s why you don’t remember about the cave.”
“I did not faint!” Molly protested squinting at Phillip. “I never faint!”
Phillip’s lips twitched which made Molly even more angry.
“Stop it! I did not faint!” Molly said, nearly in tears, to her great mortification. She hated to cry.
“All right. You only .. lost consciousness. Happy? We’re stopped for the night. Vaal just went to check on the horses.”
“Where? Is Tansy okay?” Molly asked, struggling to get free of the furs.
“Right around the curve of the cave. The horses are all fine. I’m fine too, in case you want to know,” Phillip added, stopping playing with his sword long enough to pour a cup of steaming tea and add a dollop of honey to it. “Here, drink this.” He thrust it at her.
Molly took the proffered cup and stared at it suspiciously. “Why did I pass out?” she asked.
Phillip shrugged. “Vaal thinks it was probably exhaustion. And you didn't eat enough yesterday. He was afraid at first that maybe your toes had frozen off. The tea isn’t drugged if that’s what you’re worrying about.”
Molly’s mouth dropped open and her eyes narrowed. Her toes? She wriggled them just to make sure they were there. Other than chilly, they moved fine and didn't hurt her. “I didn't think you’d drug my tea,” she lied. “And my toes are fine.”
“I know. I had to rub them for you,” Phillip replied setting back more comfortably against his rock to watch her.
Molly turned six shades of red. “Well, don't ever touch them again!”
Phillip gave her a lazy salute. “As you wish, my lady. Nasty little toes anyway.”
“Don’t you ‘my lady’ me, Phillip Manners.”
“Oh, she's awake,” said Vaal as he walked around the curve of the cave passageway.
Molly turned to regard the priest. She'd been afraid there for a few minutes. But the priest’s reassuring presence went a long way to improving her disposition. Besides, Phillip wouldn't dare tease her in front of Vaal. “I’m starved,” she announced, staring at the pot of bubbling stew.
"There’s rat in it,” Phillip commented. “It was the only meat we could come up with.”
Molly looked at him horrified.
Vaal’s voice cracked a bit as he said, “For a rat he had surprisingly long furry ears and a nice bushy little tail. Thank Phillip for snaring him for us.”
“You snared a...” Molly hesitated.
“Rabbit,” Vaal supplied. “Yes, he did. Otherwise we'd be eating vegetable stew and chewing on hard dried beef.”
“Oh,” Molly wondered what else she’d missed whilst she'd been asleep.
Phillip shrugged. “Poor little guy was half frozen himself. Wasn’t hard to do.”
Vaal eyed the two and then hunkered down to direct his attention to coming up with 3 tin mugs. He filled each with some of the rich stew. “It is still snowing hard out there. If it continues for much longer the Pass will be impossible to navigate safely.”
“Then what?” Molly asked. “Can we go back to where we left the others? This is good. Despite the rat.” She stuck her tongue out at Phillip who stood on his dignity and ignored her.
Vaal shook his head as he tasted the stew. Best not get between them. Once he’d swallowed he replied, “No. Further to go back than to go forward. I suggest we all pray to the Bastard for clear skies in the morning.”
“And that gives us what?” Molly asked.
“A chance to get out of the Pass. We’ll have to walk and lead the horses though. We’ll have to test each step to be sure we aren't veering off the trail. The snow will have drifted enough that the trail will be all that much harder to follow. A lot of people have died attempting this Pass.”
“What if He doesn’t give us clear skies?” Phillip asked. “What are our options then?”
“Then we’ll have to wait out the storm here. We don’t have much in the way of food. And we’ll have to forage for what wood we can find.”
“How far do we have to go yet?” Molly asked. “And just where are we going?”
Vaal regarded her for a moment and then reached into his travel bag. He pulled out a bit of rolled up linen and spread it out before the two children. They both scuttled forward so they could peer down at it.
“We’re here, and we're going there,” Vaal said, as he poked at the map with a finger.
He’d indicated they were barely across the border into the Northern Kingdom. The Pass of Sorrow was marked clearly on the map. The other place, where he said they were going, looked like it was a long way away. The place had no name written on the map, only a symbol marked it. It had no designation as a town or city or anything but then the map didn’t really indicate many towns or much else, other than markings indicating geographical features. Rivers, mountains, the Lake of Tears, the King’s Road that wended its way through yet more mountains, and a few scattered symbols somewhat akin to the one they would be heading toward. Molly frowned at the map. The place Vaal had indicated was past the Lake of Tears and not far from where the King’s Road ended at a large darkened area that was labelled as ‘The Sea.’
She’d never been to a sea. She didn't really know what to expect about one. Oh, she'd read books that talked about great ships that traveled the oceans and seas and great storms that sunk them and killed all their crews and passengers. Sea monsters seemed common too, from the books she’d read. Even so she still couldn’t quite put a picture in her head about what a sea should look like. All she could imagine was a bigger version of Mirror Lake, which was not that far from Kings Cross.
She wanted to ask questions but guessed Phillip, far more traveled than she, would make fun of her, so she sealed her lips and lay down instead. The warmth of the stew in her belly, and the dancing and shifting shadows from the fire made it hard to stay awake.
Well, she’d wanted an adventure, she reminded herself as she wrapped up in the furs that made up her bed and lay down to stare at the fire. She’d wanted a father too. She knew better than to wish for a mother. And she wouldn’t, she swore to herself, be afraid.
She fell asleep listening to the wailing sounds of a raging blizzard outside, the crackle of the fire, and Vaal’s soft snores. Phillip, she saw as she fell asleep, was sitting up staring into the fire.
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