The Last Lantern

Chapter 27 - Is There Nowhere Safe?

 

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009

 

The world was pristine, still, blazingly bright and without depth of any sort. Snow blanketed everything disguising even the sharpest edges as blobs of white. Molly squinted. The sun on the snow was blinding.

She jumped to hear the call of a hawk or perhaps an eagle soaring overhead.

Vaal was just in front of her, using the flexible trunk of a sapling he'd harvested to test the ground before him. They each walked, leading their horses.

There were places you could see the trail. Places swept clear by quirks of the wind-driven drifting of the snow. But other places there were massive drifts just waiting for the unwary traveler. Not to mention the worry of avalanche coming down on them from the higher reaches of the cliffs that loomed over them. Still, they couldn't stay in the cave. Not enough food, not enough wood to keep warm. Moving was their best hope.

“Where’s the Bastard when we need him,” Molly muttered to herself. “He turns up when there's a warm fire and a welcoming mug of hot spiced wine.”

Phillip had told her about his introduction to the God. And about how Vaal and the God had interacted. Molly was pretty skeptical. It seemed to her Gods ought not act that way. It was probably just Phillip imagining things.

None of which, of course, explained why He wasn't there to help them. Or why the Father or the Mother wasn’t helping them either. But then the Mother’s priest in Kings Cross had mostly just yelled at her. Molly was supposed to be a lady and more accepting, and not defiant according to the Mother’s priest who told her girls were supposed to be kind and sweet and accepting of their fate; that being mothers was the highest calling of all, and that love wasn't necessary for marriage. Hrumph. Well, she wouldn’t mind having a little girl or a little boy but she wanted a life of her own too! She wanted to choose her own husband, not be told who to marry, as well. Someone like Brother Vaal, maybe...

They trudged through snowdrifts, dodged around fallen avalanches and finally, when Molly didn’t think she could put one foot in front of another one more time, they broke out of the Pass to stand at the top of a fairly steep incline to observe the world spread out below them.

A ribbon of brilliant blue marked the river she'd seen on Vaal’s map. It was the only thing out there that wasn't white.

Well, there was one other thing that wasn’t quite white. Vaal’s eyes were on it. It was a thick column of dark grey smoke that rose almost perfectly vertically in the still air.

Vaal’s face had gone hard.

“What is that?” Molly asked.

“The Inn where we were heading.”

-----------------

They reached what was left of the inn just as the sun was setting. It was bitter cold, still, and the sky was already ablaze with stars. Molly could feel warmth still seeping from the charred remains of wooden logs and beams. The fireplace, made of stone, sat amidst the burnt rubble, black with the soot of the fire. It was the only thing that remained of the inn. It looked ominous, like a warning of some sort. And perhaps a tombstone for the people who died here.

They found dead people too. Most were charred beyond recognition. Molly felt herself turn green and ran off to throw up in nearby bushes, but there she found dead things too. A dog, a horse not far away. Worst of all, a little baby. Butchered. The poor dog had probably tried to protect the place. But what had the little baby done? She found herself sobbing.

Vaal came up behind her and scooped her up into his arms. He didn't tell her it would be all right (it wouldn't be, ever again, especially not for these people). Instead he just held her against him, saying nothing. Finally the tears subsided and turned into hiccups. Molly used the back of her gloves to brush the last of the tears away.

“I’m sorry. That was.. Babyish,” she muttered, unable to quite look at Vaal. He must think her so weak...

“No, Lady Elizabeth, that was entirely human. Compassion is never babyish. Do you think you can ride?”

Molly nodded. She didn't want to stay anywhere near this nightmare.

They set off on a snow covered road. It was at least fairly easy to see and follow. They rode using the light of a newly risen moon until Vaal led them off the road and into a deep stand of evergreens. There they dismounted to stretch their legs and give the horses a breather. They ate cold food and fed the horses what little they had for them. Then Vaal had them mount up and ride some more.

Molly fought against exhaustion and despair. She’d caught herself sagging off to one side in her saddle more than once. Phillip, who’d said not a word since they'd found what was left of the inn, looked ashen and his eyes were sunken and bruised looking, as if he were as exhausted and as shocked as she was.

Finally Vaal turned off the main Kings Road and took them down a narrow track that meandered through a now dormant field. There was no sign anyone had ridden that way since it had snowed. The trail led down into a narrow vale. There they saw a small farmstead sitting near a rushing stream. “We’ll stay here for the night. Let me talk to them first. They’ll be wary after what happened at the inn.”

“Will they know?” Phillip asked.

“They’ll know. You two pull off this trail and wait amidst those trees. If I don't return go back to the Kings Road and follow it to the Ford. There ask for lodgings at the Inn.”

“But..” Phillip said.

“Wait until the moon reaches its zenith. If I’m not back by then I won’t be coming back,” Vaal added, staring hard at Phillip. Molly shivered. She was frightened. It seemed there was no one they could trust, nowhere to go.

Phillip nodded and watched Vaal ride off.

Molly fought to not cry. She couldn't let Phillip see how afraid she was.

“Let’s dismount. We’ll leave the horses saddled though. Have you any more food?” he asked.

Molly shook her head no. She was so hungry her tummy rumbled.

Phillip watched her a moment then said, “It will be fine. Vaal will be back before the moon reaches zenith.”

“Of course he will,” Molly replied, praying it would be so.

As they waited a wind rose and moaned through the trees around them. Molly shivered.

“It’s good,” Phillip told her. “It’ll hide our tracks. See? The snow is blowing around again.”

Molly looked at the trail they'd followed. Yes, the snow, dry and light, was up and swirling around. Maybe it would cover her in a blanket of warmth and she could sleep.

Phillip crawled under one of the monsterous fir trees and fiddled around under there and then said, “Molly come. It’s pretty dry in here and warmer.”

She crawled in after him. He’d stirred up the blanket of dry needles that had fallen under the tree.

She sat where Phillip directed her to and he piled pine needles around her. She curled up into a tiny ball and was surprised to find she was feeling warmer already.

She fought to keep her eyes open. She could just see Phillip’s outline against the moonlight sky as he stood not far away watching the trail for Vaal. Then her eyes closed and despite everything she slept.

After what seemed like only seconds, a hand was shaking her shoulder. She opened her eyes to see Vaal leaning over her. “Come,” he whispered.

 

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