The Last Lantern

Chapter 33 - Two Boys

 

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009

 

It was cold and nighttime and they were riding again, she and Phillip. Ethan had watched them ride off, Phillip on Max, Molly riding the dead raider’s roan.

Before they’d left they’d shorn Molly of her hair, dressed her as a boy, fashioned a sheath to fit Molly’s back and found a short sword to put in it. Molly felt better armed. She might not have had lessons, but she figured just being able to reach for it was better than not having anything at all to protect herself and feeling helpless.

Also, Molly had found Vaal’s map where he’d hidden it in the shepard’s hut. She’d retrieved it when Ethan was outside. She still didn’t fully trust him. Phillip didn’t argue the point, so apparently he had his doubts too. She stuffed the map down her shirt and felt the better for having it.

They set off the moment they were ready. Luckily Phillip had gotten some rations from the Brothers so they wouldn’t actually starve. Neither of them knew where they could safely stop for food or shelter. Phillip had thought about going back to Hawk House. But decided against it for the same reason Vaal had. He was afraid they’d be trapped there.

Nor could they travel too fast. The moons lit the landscape but even so the terrain was rough and the horses could easily put a hoof wrong. There was no road, not even much of a game trail that they found. Instead they travelled across high meadows and a few scraggly copses. They forded a few mostly frozen streams - or maybe it was the same stream several times. Molly wasn’t certain. The wind, thankfully, was nearly non-existent.

Molly had a thousand questions, but Phillip refused to answer anything, or even speak much. He pointed out that voices carried far in the night stillness. So they rode in silence and Molly brooded.

She tried to understand what had happened. The tree grabbing her, holding her, the men finding them, Vaal... Unbidden tears came to her eyes, as she imagined the raiders hurting Vaal to make him betray her. He wouldn’t she knew. He’d never break, no matter what. Her fault, she thought miserably. Her fault Vaal was most likely going to die. Her fault Phillip might end up dead too.

Phillip, when they stopped for a short rest, saw her brush away tears but when she glared at him he didn’t say anything about it, which was just what she wanted. After a bit he announced that they were not going to ride directly to the ford as Vaal had told them to do should anything happen to him or they become separated.

Molly opened her mouth to argue but Phillip’s response was calm and quiet. “Going straight to the ford is too obvious,” he declared. “The Raiders will likely be waiting, or at least watching the ford.”

Molly had to admit, that since they’d known about her, and found them at the shepard’s hut, Phillip was probably right. Not to mention, if they did torture Vaal and he did say something.... She wouldn’t blame him! Not at all! If it meant he lived... She almost sobbed out loud.

Phillip looked down quickly pretending he hadn’t seen her tears. “We’ll head for the King’s Road instead and use the main river crossing instead of the ford.

Molly bit her lip. She wasn’t certain that was much safer.

“We won’t stand out so much,” Phillip explained. “We’ll be just two more of the travelers along the Road that way.”

She frowned as she pictured Vaal’s map. It was too dark to look at it now. Where they had been going had been marked only with a symbol. That was Phillip’s plan, to eventually get them to that place. But she and Phillip weren’t entire sure what exactly that place even was. Would they know what to do when they got there? Would they even know they’d reached it?

And how was it the raiders had found them? Ethan hadn’t said. He’d not even said who was paying the raiders. He told them he wasn’t certain, that he hadn’t been able to go with Commander Grashen when he met his superiors. It was one of the reasons, Ethan had told them, why he needed to go back.

“All right. I agree,” Molly finally said.

Phillip nodded sharply. “Right. Then let’s get moving. I’m colder sitting still.”

So was Molly, truth be told.

They rode until the sun was beginning to brighten the eastern sky. Then Phillip led them off the main trail to a protected area in a stand of huge wintertrees. The same sort of tree that had captured Molly. She hesitated for a second then forced herself to admit the tree, regardless of how scary it had been at first, had helped her.

They both dismounted and Phillip turned to look down the hill ahead of them. At the bottom of the hill they could see the meandering ribbon of the Kings Road. And, there was an inn not far ahead. Lazy smoke rose from the chimneys, and they could just make out movement near the stables.

Molly’s mouth watered. She so wanted a hot meal, and a hot bath, and a feather bed!

“We need to find someplace warm. I have money, we could stay there, but it’s a risk,” he told her.

“A risk yes, but the horses need grain and I’m hungry,” Molly told him.

Phillip nodded. “Yeah, me too. I have rations in my saddlebags from the Brothers. We’ll have to chew on the jerky. I don’t want to risk a fire just yet.”

“You could catch another rabbit,” Molly declared, seeing some rabbit tracks in the snow.

“No fire,” Phillip reminded her.

Molly sighed. “Yeah. Oh, we have to get Vaal free!” she suddenly blurted out. “He’d know if that inn was safe!”

Phillip cleared his throat. “Molly... Don’t worry too much about Vaal. I have a feeling he’ll be just fine.”

Molly frowned ferociously at him. “We are not going to abandon him. They planned to do horrible things to him. Would you have just abandoned me, if they’d taken me?” she demanded.

Phillip colored as he regarded her. “No. But it isn’t the same thing.”

“How is it not?” Molly hissed. “He’s our friend. He’s pledged to help us.”

“And would be furious with us if we risked our necks on a lost cause, especially if it was for him,” Phillip pointed out, hoping a rational argument would help. “He’s risked his neck to keep you safe. He'd hate it if he ... Died ... and they still captured you.”

Molly just set her jaw and looked at him.

“Look, we don’t even know where they took him,” Phillip replied. “Neither of us knows the North. I don’t have the least idea where to begin looking.”

Molly visibly deflated. Phillip was right, she knew. She got up and went to her horse and rummaged around in her saddle bag to hide her tears. She sighed. She pulled the map out from inside her shirt and carried it back and unrolled it where Phillip could see it.

“Do you know what the symbols stand for?” Molly asked. There were several symbols, repeated at different places across the map. The one she pointed at was at the place Vaal had said was their destination.

Phillip shook his head no.

“Well,” Molly replied thoughtfully, “there’s the place we are going.”

Phillip nodded.

“See the symbol?”

Phillip agreed he saw the symbol.

“And here’s another just like it, only this one is a lot closer to where we are,” Molly said as she pointed to one near the King’s Road. “We have to be around here, right?” she asked, running her finger along the King’s Road on the map. “There’s the river, that looks like this curve of the Kings Road. and we haven’t crossed the river yet, and there it sits. So this place,” she pointed to a location further down the kings road, nearer the river, “has the same symbol as the one we’re heading for. Maybe the symbol marks a safe place, or safe house or cave?”

Phillip frowned. “Maybe. But maybe it means something else entirely. We have no way to know!”

“True. But if we ride on, we’ll come to where the symbol is. And maybe you could ride up to it, whatever it is, alone, and maybe you could figure out if it’s safe for us to stay there, and ask for help?”

Phillip frowned again. He wanted to find some flaw in that logic, but really, it seemed pretty sound. It was too cold to stay outside much longer. And they and the horses were tired. And he didn’t have a better plan... “Okay, but you have to swear to me that you’ll stay hidden and wait for me where I tell you to. And wait there, without doing anything... Uhm, dumb.”

Molly made a face. “I NEVER do anything dumb!”

“Well, all right. Don’t do anything dangerous and promise you’ll wait for me without coming to rescue me.”

Molly considered that carefully. “How long would I have to wait?”

Phillip wondered how long he could get away with. Knowing Molly, not all that long. “All right. Two hours. From when I leave to go to whatever it is.”

Molly shook her head. “Too long. I’ll wait one hour from when I last see you. I’m not going to wait all that far away, either. Get used to it,” she added, setting her jaw and daring him to argue.

Phillip, figuring argument was most likely fruitless, nodded glumly.

 

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