The Last Lantern

Chapter 37 - No Place Safe

 

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009

 

“By the Father,” Donal whispered, as he drew his sword, observing the dead bodies that lay everywhere. “Stay close,” he added, looking around at Molly and then at Phillip.

Phillip, his face drained of color, just nodded and drew his sword. Molly followed suit. She could, almost, remember a time when she'd never been afraid of anything. Now it seemed like something dark and sinister lurked around every corner. She wasn't sure who to trust, who to believe. It seemed like everyone had a viewpoint that colored their judgments and decisions and she was ignorant of it all. It was a horrible feeling, not understanding.

“Don’t let anyone or anything get between us,” Donal added as he spurred his horse forward.

The horse was reluctant given the stench of death but finally responded to Donal’s urging. Molly’s horse and Phillip’s horse Max were no more eager to proceed. Molly wished yet again that she had Tansy back.

Tears blurred Molly’s vision as they rode over the gate that spanned the silted-in moat. Dead people lay in amongst the reeds below them too. So many people dead. Why? How did they get into the castle in the first place?

Then they were passing through the open entry to the keep. More and more death awaited them. Humans and horses and dogs and even farm animals. Nothing was spared. Nothing moved other than crows, vultures and rats - and other creatures Molly didn’t want to think about. The wantonness of it all stunned her. Why kill a goat? Why kill a child? Was it some sort of blood fever that took over and stopped thought and compassion?

They came to a halt at what looked like the most well fortified tower of the castle. It’s door, however, lay battered and broken, the entry gaping open.

Donal slid off his horse, his sword still in his hand. He looked round at his two charges, his face gray and set. He was clearly intending to climb the tower to look for someone, or something. “I’d rather you two remained here. At the first sign of anyone ride out of here and head north.”

Phillip shook his head, as he too slid off his horse. “I’ll stay out here to keep an eye out, but I’m not leaving without you. I don’t know the North. We need a guide.”

Molly added, “And I’m going in with you.”

“It won’t be pretty,” Donal said, looking greenish.

“Nevertheless, I’m with you,” Molly replied, clutching her sword with both sweaty hands. She didn't want to just sit there and think. And what could be worse inside than she’d already seen out here?

“I’m looking for a woman and two children, hoping to hell I don’t find them here,” Donal told her. “Stay behind me on the stairs. If you see any movement or hear anything, you’d better scream loudly.”

“I will,” Molly promised, thinking she might just scream for no reason, she was so frightened. She changed her grip on her sword, and set her mouth in a determined scowl.

“Phillip, climb the wall and see if you can see any movement coming toward the castle,” Donal ordered.

Phillip nodded and moved off to do so as Donal took his first step into the tower.

Donal froze after that first step, clearly listening for voices or movement. There was a chilly breeze that smelled of death washing down the stairs to their right, and the scuttling sound of something small and four legged nearby, but nothing else. Donal set one foot on the tower’s inner staircase; Molly was only a few feet behind him.

They climbed the spiral stone staircase without speaking, the only sound their breathing and once in awhile a pebble or stone dislodged from the stairway itself skittering downward behind them. With Phillip guarding the castle and tower, and Donal ahead of her, Molly felt fairly safe. The stairway was narrow and twisting so if they met anyone on it they’d have to get past Donal to get to her. Still, her heart was beating a noisy counterpoint to her breathing and she wished with all her might that Vaal was with them too. Not that she didn’t think Donal as capable, but having a priest along who had a God who tended to make appearances couldn’t hurt.

As they neared the top of the stairwell, they found yet more bodies. The defenders must have put up a good fight. They had to step over two dead men, both dressed in black like Black Brothers. Donal scowled at them then returned his attention to the area above them.

At the top of the stairs was an open room. Molly had to wait a moment to see much of it as Donal was being cautious since there was room here for a group of men to attack him. Even so, all they found was death.

Donal, his voice strained, called out once he’d toed the bodies to be certain the soldiers were dead, “Igraine!” There was no answering call. Only a flutter of wings from one of the rooms. Donal prowled forward and froze in a doorway. Molly sidled up next to him so she could see too.

Inside lay a pile of men near the doorway, indicating they’d tried to save whoever was inside. Most wore fighting leathers and seemed unremarkable to Molly, at least no different from most rebels she’d seen. But there were also Black Brothers lying there also. They seemed to be the ones fighting to enter.

Molly looked beyond the dead men to the spot Donal was staring at. There, backed up against a wall, and fallen amidst an appalling amount of blood lay what was left of the people they’d been guarding. A woman and two children, a boy and a girl. All three bodies were headless.

Donal’s body slumped against the doorjamb and he looked shaken.

“Who are they?” Molly asked, regarding the corpses with grim determination.

“Stefan’s wife and children,” Donal replied, sounding as if he were close to weeping.

“Prince Stefan’s?” Molly asked.

“Yes,” Donal replied. “And if we can’t keep even them safe...”

“Are... The Black Brothers. Did they do this? Would they?” Molly whispered.

“No. They’re not Black Brothers. Not truly. As likely happened at Sparrow Inn, they must have infiltrated, pretending to be priests, and then opened the gates for their own army to enter.”

Molly shivered. How could anyone know who to trust?

 

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