The Last Lantern
Chapter 36 - The Cliffs
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009
They took their time departing the Inn. Donal was in his ‘pretty’ phase. He was wearing fancy clothing and the ornate sword, rather than his serious one, hung at his hip. Even for Molly it was hard to imagine this dandy being the same man she’d seen in worn leathers with an actual deadly sword.
Phillip had ridden out just after dawn when the outriders and the post road coach left. He was to travel to the bridge over the river, separate from the others and wait for her and Donal there.
Molly rushed around shoving Donal’s gear into the right pockets and packs and arranging his breakfast for him and finally she was able to sit down with a hot breakfast for herself with the rest of the servants in the kitchen.
This morning the table there was full of people and when she sat down she began to overlisten the gossip and rumors they were spreading. News of the attack on the inn further up the road by the Black Brothers had spread. People were confused and angry and there was nearly a fight at the table, as one King’s Guard, a follower of the Father, threatened to knife a postcoach guard, who was a follower of the Guardian. When the Father’s man called the Guardian ‘Bastard’, swords were drawn and everyone scrambled to their feet, arranging for an empty circle around the two combatants. There was a second there when the entire room might have been drawn into a deadly brawl. The two men glaring at one another, both with bared sword and knife.
Cook chose that moment of frozen intensity to move. She was suddenly beside the two men apparently unafraid of bared steel. She rapped first one then the other with her wooden spoon. They were so surprised at her interference they froze and turned their attention onto her.
“I’ll have none of this in my kitchen, do you hear me!” she hissed at them, catching first one man's eye and then the other’s. Once she was certain she had their attention, she turned and glared at the rest of the folks in the room. “Either sit and eat, or get out! I don’t know the truth of the matter of what happened at the Swallow Inn, but I do know I won’t tolerate bloodshed in my kitchen! Take your arguments outside!”
Amazingly enough, the men involved looked ashamed and sank down to finish their food. At the earliest moment they could, each scurried out of the kitchen, through different doors.
Molly sat back down and just listened to the tales being whispered at the table. One was that there were many other places under attack and that there had even been a deadly attack at the ford last night. Extra Kings Guards were on their way to the bridge to protect the travelers and that couriers were rushing up and down the King’s Road with orders and messages to all the royal families to gather their fighting men and prepare to act on orders from the King.
Molly bit her lip and decided she'd wait until she could ask Donal about all the swirling accusations and rumors. Surely he’d know more than these servants and guards did.
As it turned out Donal knew nothing for certain, and he advised Molly to beware of believing anything at that point. But at least the upset gave them a way to get to where they were heading far more quickly. There was a lot of traffic on the King’s Road and Donal and Molly rushing down the road gave no one cause to look twice. Those who knew him figured he was hurrying to the King’s side, those who didn't were too busy worrying about their own safety or plans.
Phillip was awaiting them at the Bridge. King’s Guards were in evidence scrutinizing all the travelers crossing the bridge. Even so, they seemed intent mostly on making it known that any attack here would end in disaster rather than closely questioning anyone merely crossing the bridge. Phillip fell in with Donal and Molly and the three of them were allowed to cross unmolested. They raced down the King’s Road in company with coaches and couriers and outriders, most of whom where headed toward the capital too.
Molly kept glancing over at Donal whose face was white and hard. His jaw worked and he looked more fierce than she'd ever seen him. One of the Guards at the crossing had told him that yes, indeed, there’d been an attack at the ford. Donal was, Molly realized, terrified for Lady Emily. She’d even suggested they ride there to find her, but Donal had said, no. Molly was his responsibility now and getting her to safety was his first priority, he’d insisted. Molly thought he was crazy. If it were her, and her lover was there, she'd drop everything and go find her.
Phillip’s thoughts were much in line with Molly’s. He’d even offered to go to the ford to find her for Donal but he’d ordered Phillip to remain with Molly with a curt, “Emily is not a helpless female. She’ll know what to do. She’ll be fine.” Donal might be telling himself this over and over again, but it was clear he was still terrified for his lady.
As it was they rode onward and then took a turn eastward at a main crossroads where the King’s Road split. The more northerly course would take them directly to the capital, Alba. The easterly road sign read simply: The Cliffs.
Traffic to the Cliffs was light, comparatively speaking. There were wagons going in the other direction, presumably toward the capital, Molly thought. The wagons were laden with staples and other produce from the farms that were in evidence along this branch of the King’s Road. As they traveled onward the vast stretches of open land began to give way to rolling hills with many smaller farmsteads. Woods and streams grew plentiful too and they had to cross several bridges along the way. The weather was getting warmer as well. Donal explained to Molly that being near a sea tended to moderate the worst temperatures of winter. She believed it.
But she’d never have believed the sight that suddenly spread out before them as the Road climbed up a hill and they reached the crest. Before them, as far as the eye could see, was a vast sea of water, the deepest blue she'd ever seen. The shoreline was raised up above the sea for long stretches on high cliffs. The sea pounded at the cliffs, sending armies of thundering waves against them. The cliffs themselves were white as snow. Donal explained the white was not snow, though, but the pure limestone from which the cliffs were formed.
They could see several huddled towns along the wide white sand shore. Towns had grown up wherever there was a stretch of beach, allowing easy access to the sea itself. Boats rode at anchor in the fitful sea, or were pulled up onto the beach. A jetty off of one town protected the most crowded harbor. There huge ships were gathered. Donal explained that was the Northern King’s Navy, an army that fought from the sea. Molly’s mouth hung open to consider it. Yes, she'd read about such things but she'd never really considered them as something real.
Then Donal hurried them forward, down the steep incline of the Road and off toward one particular town. A castle sat on a headland above the town, and soon Molly realized it was toward that castle they were heading.
But as they neared it, it quickly became obvious that things were not right. The first evidence was a dead sheep. Then a bit further on. more dead sheep and then a horse. Carrion crows and vultures flooded the sky as they rode down the narrow raised roadway toward the castle. Donal reached down and loosed his sword. Phillip, his lips pursed and his eyes darting around them, did the same.
They saw the first dead body near the rise that led to the bridge across the moat that protected the castle. At the top of the rise they halted their horses. Dead men and dead horses lay across the roadway. Most wore fighting leathers and armor, although there were more than a few servants and smallfolk. The drawbridge of the castle was down and unprotected. The place, other than for the dead and the death-eaters, seemed deserted.
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