The Last Lantern
Chapter 29 - Hawk House
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009
In the end they decided to call upon the Black Brothers of a nearby Guardian’s House to help. But it was Phillip who was sent there. Alone.
Vaal and Molly were to await his return in an upper meadow shepard’s hut, unused now that the sheep were down in the lowlands given the already wintry weather.
As was true for most countries with such treacherous weather, the shack was kept fully stocked for any travelers who needed to seek shelter from sudden storms. There Molly and Vaal were able to stay comfortably warm and even make a hearty soup utilizing yet another unfortunate rabbit.
Molly, once Phillip had left, was surprised to realize she was nervous and worried. It was dangerous, she knew, riding out alone, and apparently dangerous because of her, mostly. She still didn’t understand why Phillip insisted on coming along. But she had to admit, deep down in her heart, she was glad he was along. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad to have an older brother.
When she and Vaal sat in front of the stove, having seen to the horses and cleaned up after their meal, she suddenly felt quite content. She was warm and her tummy was full, and she didn't feel as if her life hung by a thread. She could almost pretend no one was after them and that they were finally safe. But still, she needed to understand better what it was all about.
Molly cleared her throat and when Vaal looked up at her she began, “My father said I was in danger. I don’t know why you’re helping me. I mean, I appreciate it. I do. It’s just.. And I don’t understand why you let Phillip come along, rather than send him home where he’ll be safe, I mean.” She bit her lip, admitting she sounded ungrateful. Again.
“Phillip has chosen his own path. It is his right.”
Molly frowned. All this talk about choosing. How come she never got to choose?
“Perhaps,” Vaal continued, after an extended silence, “you fail to realize why you are so important.”
“Well, my father said he wouldn’t be able to help Prince Stefan if I were being held hostage.”
“That is true, so far as it goes.”
Molly, who’d been frowning down at her boots, looked up at Vaal and stared at him a moment, before asking, “What is beyond that reason, then?”
“You are Prince Stefan’s niece.”
“Yeah, he did sort of say that. My mother was his half-sister.”
“Indeed. It is so. Your mother was Stefan's half sister. Same mother, different fathers.”
Molly frowned wondering just why this was so convoluted. “And?”
“His father was King Theodore, who was overthrown by Octavian, who is king now.”
“Okay,” Molly said, waiting.
“Your mother’s father was Octavian.”
“Wait. My grandmother... “
“Your grandmother, Margaret, gave birth to two children. A son, Stefan, a daughter, Eleanor. Your mother.”
“She'd been married off to Theodore. But she loved another. Octavian.”
Molly frowned. How could her grandmother have loved Octavian? “But he’s the bad guy.”
“Is he?” Vaal asked softly, staring into the flames that shown through the glass of the stove.
“My father is fighting him,” Molly replied, her voice hard, sure. “He has to be.”
“Yes, of course he does.”
Phillip rode down to the Guardian’s House on Vaal’s warhorse. If they wanted to pass as a common man and his two sons, then Vaal could hardly ride a warhorse. Phillip also had Vaal’s sword. It was certainly not a weapon a common man would ever carry. A blade such as it cost far too dear. Most knights couldn't pay the price of a blade like it. So it too was to be left at Hawk House.
Hawk House. The Guardian’s Houses were all named based on guardian nature spirits, Vaal had told him. This one was ‘Hawk’. Each House had a sightly different outlook and calling. Hawk was farsight, Vaal had explained. Not as in something magical, but more as in attempting to predict future events based on history and human nature. It was not one of the more militant Houses, obviously. Instead one focused on erudition and study. Even so...
Phillip turned down the road to the House just as dawn broke, or as near to it as he could manage. He rode up to the gates as the bells pealed, welcoming the dawn. The gates, unbarred so far as he could see, were closed. He was about to dismount when the gates swung open of their own accord. The House itself was more a stone fortress than a library. It had battlements, and arrow slits in the towers. To guard knowledge? Who’d want to steal it? And yet the gates were unbarred?
A shiver ran up Phillip’s backbone. He hesitated a moment then spurred the warhorse forward. The gate swung closed behind him. No one appeared so he shrugged and headed to the stables first. He was quite certain someone knew a stranger had ridden through the gates. Surely they kept a sentry, even if the monks, brothers, whatever, were at prayers.
He dismounted and led the horse up to the stable doors. They too opened for him. He walked in, attempting to look as if such things were commonplace to him, doors that opened by themselves.
Inside was warm and cozy, clean and sweet smelling from fresh hay. Mostly there were cows and sheep inside, and a few working horses. He found an empty stall and led Vaal’s black into it. He had already unsaddled and fed him and was currying him when the first sign of humanity appeared. It was a scrawny lad still with pimples. The boy smiled. “The brothers are waiting breakfast for you. I’ll finish, if you like. I know what Beauty likes,” he added, holding out an apple to the warhorse.
“Beauty? That’s his name?” Phillip asked. It seemed an odd name for a warhorse.
“He’s quite taken with himself, this one,” the boy added, as he ran a hand along the shining neck. “He won't like being left behind.” The boy turned to Phillip then and said, “Go on. Don’t keep the brothers waiting. They do get testy.”
Phillip picked up his saddlebag and untied Vaal’s sword from the bundle it had been wrapped in and trudged toward the main House.
He looked about himself at the courtyard. The place was well tended. There were, he also noted, practice yards. Apparently Brother Vaal wasn't the only combat trained Black Brother.
As Phillip approached the great blackwood doors that barred entry (large enough to admit a large size cart pulled by a team of horses), the doors swung open. By now he’d sort of gotten used to it.
One monk stood in the foyer, his hands together, hanging in front of him, but otherwise at a sort of martial parade rest. An eye, like the one that hung round Vaal’s neck, gleamed on his chest. Where Vaal’s eye had an opal at its heart, this one had a ruby. The monk, not much older than Phillip, bowed his head. He was blond and blue-eyed and suddenly he smiled.
Phillip bowed his head in return.
“You are welcome here Phillip Manners. Come. The Head will see you after you break your fast.”
How did he know my name, Phillip wondered. “Good morrow, Brother...”
“I’m renamed Rhen here. No need to add the honorific. We are all equals in the House.”
“Ah,” Phillip commented, unsure what else to say. “Then you must call me Phillip. Who, please, or what, is the Head?”
Rhen, as they walked side by side toward a room off the eastward side of the great hall, replied, “It is the title of the brother who is now charged with guiding this House.” As he said it Rhen strode up to another set of double doors, not nearly so large as the main ones (which, Phillip had noted, had closed of their own accord). These doors Rhen opened himself, throwing them wide to reveal a sunlit room and the inviting smells of good food.
There was one table set under the east windows. Phillip couldn’t really see who sat there, as the sun was shining brilliantly through mullion windows. A sidetable was piled high with food. Men, women, and a few boys Phillip’s age, and far more Rhen’s age, were helping themselves. But most turned toward the visitor as the doors opened.
A figure at the main table stood. “Welcome to my House.” The voice evoked memories. Phillip swallowed in his suddenly dry throat.
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