The Last Lantern
Chapter 34 - The Watchtower
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009
Phillip crept forward. There wasn't a lot of cover, just winter-dead grasses and bushes. He shivered. It was getting colder still as the sun sank.
He pulled out his ocular and considered the building. He and Molly had watched it for an hour before he'd decided he dare explore it. In that hour they hadn't seen any activity. Nor could he see any sign of hoof or footprints in the newly fallen snow, the one good thing about the wretched weather of the north. At least you knew if someone had been around. Maybe. Because there was one area he thought might have been swept with a branch or something to obliterate tracks.
The building itself was an abandoned watchtower, some distance off the King’s Road and up on a rise. Arrow slits littered the tower, and there was a roof area for observation and no doubt for shooting from. He’d seen no sign of life, except for some snowrats and a few hawks who sailed overhead.
He got up on hands and knees and slunk forward as cautiously as possible. The place must be ancient, he thought. There’d once been a moat but it was now silted in and all that remained was a slight depression between stone retaining walls covered in winter-dead brambles.
The main drawbridge entry to the keep, wide enough to accommodate a wagon, was up although the wood looked to be rotted and falling apart. The iron nails and rings and hinges were rotting away too, leaving a fine rusty stain on the snow near the doorway. There was, however, a smaller door that looked to be in far better shape. If anyone was in the place, that would be the door they’d use.
Phillip, was nearly to that smaller door when he noticed a faded bit of painting on the stones making up the doorway. He’d seen such painting elsewhere. On Hawk House, he remembered, although there it had seemed merely decorative stonework. He hadn’t thought it might actually mean anything.
Phillip regarded what little he could make out of the pattern of in the stonework and thought it might possibly incorporate the symbol he and Molly had seen on the map. So was the symbol they thought meant safety merely one for a watchtower or other sort of keep? He didn't know, couldn't know at this point.
He ran crouched, keeping as low as he could, up to the stone wall near the doorway. He stood, pulling out his knife. He loosed his sword, but needed that hand to try to open the wooden door into the keep. He took a deep breath and reached for the handle. It was rusted metal and when he pressed down on the latch it hesitated a moment then gave. Interestingly enough, even though it was rusty looking, the mechanism worked perfectly and without a sound.
Phillip’s heart was in his throat. He took a breath around it, shoved the door open and stepped inside, moving as fast as he could out of the doorway so he wouldn’t present quite as obvious a target.
Nothing seemed to be moving, other than a few tall now dead weeds in a slight breeze engendered by his entry. He swung the door shut behind himself with a foot.
“About time,” said a voice. “I’ve been freezing my balls off waiting for you. Where the hell is Vaal?”
Phillip looked around a bit madly, trying to find a body to go with the voice. He looked up toward the second story and finally spotted the speaker standing in a dark bit of shadow. The man stepped forward. It was Sir Donal, dressed in fighting leathers, his sword drawn.
“What’s wrong?” Donal asked harshly. “Where is Vaal? Even more importantly, where is Lady Elizabeth? Molly?”
“She’s .. She’s waiting for me to tell her it’s safe here. Is it?” Phillip added, eyeing Donal’s sword.
“Bastard’s Balls. Of course it’s safe. You know me. Again I ask, where’s Vaal?”
“We were betrayed,” Phillip replied stubbornly. “Someone told Raiders where we were. It might have been you. And they’ve taken Vaal.”
Donal stepped completely out of the doorway and slid his sword into its scabbard. He danced lightly down the set of winding steps that led to where Phillip stood, his dagger still in his hand.
“Tell me,” Donal ordered. When Phillip still hesitated, Donal added, “Who else do you have to turn to. Me, at least, you know. I did take Lady Elizabeth to Prince Stefan and her father. Have you a better ally in mind, given that Vaal is currently out of the game?”
“Game? Game? You call this a game? I killed men yesterday! Vaal might be, well, dead for all we know.”
Donal’s face softened. “Sorry. But it is a game. Think of it as a chess game, only with multiple dimensions and players and an infinite number of moves. Look, I was here to meet Vaal, I have supplies for you, and some notes sent to Vaal, and something for Molly. Call her in here before she does something stupid, won’t you?”
“She never does anything stupid!” Phillip replied hotly.
Donal’s lips quirked upward. “Neither does Lady Emily. All the same, I’d rather have her under my eye than not.”
“Where is Lady Emily?” Phillip asked.
Donal grinned. “Freezing her tail off at the ford where YOU were supposed to cross. When you were late I decided to come here in case Vaal had decided the ford was too exposed to use.”
“Was it? Exposed?” Phillip asked.
Donal frowned. “There were strangers there, true. Perhaps.”
Phillip nodded and sheathed his dagger. Donal nodded an acknowledgement of that. “We can start a fire and get you two warmed up, and then you can explain to me just what happened and how. I’ll need to let Bryce and Stefan know.”
An hour later, Donal, Phillip and Molly were gathered round a fire in what must have once been the dungeon of the watchtower. It was well ventilated so the smoke wouldn’t be seen rising from the watchtower and alert anyone that someone was there. The dungeon showed signs of constant use. Not only the firepit, but there were wooden beds with straw mattresses and even some provisions. The entry was concealed amidst fallen rocks in the most destroyed portion of the watchtower, effectively hiding its existence to casual visitors to the ruins.
Donal, true to his word, had provisions and letters. Given Vaal’s absence, Donal opened up the letters for Vaal and gave Molly hers. Molly’s was a note from her grandfather, much to her surprise. She had to fight to not cry she missed him and Rosslyn so much.
Grandfather’s note mostly was just to say that he loved her and to take care of herself. And that he missed her. At that instant she missed him so much she thought her heart would break right there. He was alone now...
Donal, having read the notes for Vaal, passed them on to Phillip. Phillip hesitated though before he read them, frowning at Donal. “I’m not a rebel,” Phillip declared.
“Oh? I see. You just happen to be running from Raiders who were probably sent by King Octavian, and you thoughtlessly killed at least one of them. If you’re not a Rebel then just what are you?”
“Point taken,” Phillip replied after a moment. He took the letters. They were littered with code words none of which Phillip understood. He looked up at Donal who replied, “Molly, get out your map. I’ll explain what I can to the both of you. And I expect I’d best go along with you two. Keeping Lady Eliz..., er, Lady Molly safe seems to me to be the most important thing right now.”
“You don't think... Vaal...” Molly began, hating the tears that were trying to form in her eyes.
“Oh. He’ll be fine,” Donal replied too heartily. “Don't you worry about him. He’ll call up the Bastard and scare the Father out of this Raider of yours. The man is dumber than dirt to take a Bastard priest hostage, which by now he’s no doubt discovered. If he's still alive. Ah. Looks like the stew is ready. Hungry you two?”
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