The Last Lantern

Chapter 40 - Old Friends

 

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2010

 

Vaal groaned as he awoke although he noticed the throbbing in his leg had eased considerably since the last time he’d been conscious. The healer must have drugged the soup she’d given him. He’d slept like the dead. Not the shadow of a dream or a thought for, he squinted at the room, quite a few hours apparently. It had been dark when last he was conscious. Now it was, judging from the shadows, late afternoon.

He heard a noise and looked for the source. The figure sat on a chair near the windows. It had been so still Vaal hadn't noticed it at first. The way the light came through the window left the figure as a black silhouette. Vaal regarded it.

“Hello old friend,” said a voice.

“You,” Vaal breathed. “You’re holding me?”

The figure stood and walked over to stand above Vaal’s bed. He was an older man, once dark hair now heavily crusted over with silver. His beard was trimmed close to his face. He was still a handsome man, despite the deep furrows worry and time had etched on his face. He reached out and rested a hand on Vaal’s shoulder. “Do you really believe I’d be foolish enough to believe torture would break you, of all people?”

Vaal regarded his old friend. A friend from his first life. Now he wasn't sure exactly what their relationship was, or ought to be. “How have you come here, and why?”

“Stefan's wife and children are dead,” the man answered. Vaal swore he heard actual regret in that simple sentence. It surprised him.

“Who would do such a thing?” Vaal asked.

“Well,” the figure said, drawing up a chair next to Vaal’s bed and taking a seat there, “it wasn't me.”

“The Southron King then,” Vaal replied, trying to think through the remnants of drugs in his system.

“Perhaps,” the figure replied.

“Well certainly not the Rebels,” Vaal hissed.

“Which Rebels do you mean? I can think of three distinct groups of them. Stefan’s band is hardly the only one that wants my head not to mention my crown.”

“Stefan will blame you, Octavian.”

“I know. That’s why I wanted to speak to you. And to ask you to bring the child to me.”

“Molly? She’s still alive?” Vaal’s hopes sputtered back to a thin thread of life.

“Yes. Last seen at the Castle where Igraine died. Donal Egan and the boy Phillip Manners were with her. My agents lost them in the heavy traffic on the postroad, but it seemed they were headed to Alba.”

“I’ve got to go after them,” Vaal said, throwing off his blanket and woozily sitting up. “Bastard give me strength.” Vaal looked down at his leg. There was no bandage on the wound. It was closed and new skin was busily covering over the scar.

“Apparently He has,” Octavian commented as he regard the wound. “The Healer told me it was touch and go whether or not you’d lose that leg.”

Vall pushed himself off the bed, testing the leg, trying to put a bit of pressure on it. Octavian took Vaal’s elbow to steady him.

“It’s weak but serviceable,” Vaal reported. “The drugs however...”

“Will wash out of your system by morning. You can set out then and will have better luck finding them in daylight than at dead of night, at any rate. They’ll be holed up somewhere themselves.”

“So, how is it you are here?” Vaal asked as he sank back down to his bed.

“My agent reported that you’d been taken. Commander Grashen and his band are no longer with us, I’m afraid.”

“They were posing as Black Brothers,” Vaal hissed.

“I know. Do you seriously think I’d have anyone doing that? Possibly as Mother’s priests, but surely not the Guardian’s. After all, I know your secrets,” Octavian added.

“All of them?” Vaal retorted.

“No, granted. But I know enough to realize that if I hope to keep the North together against a Southron army I want the Black Brothers and their God on my side.”

Vaal nodded, after a moment. “I admit, I didn't see you as foolish enough to be attempting that particular subterfuge.”

“Thank you for that,” Octavian muttered dryly.

 

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Early the next morning, Vaal was on the road. He wore borrowed clothing, fighting leathers, with a borrowed sword. Nothing was black. He wanted to travel fast and unremarked. He looked like any other sword for hire this way, one of many men with no particular allegiance who’d fight for whoever offered them hope and cash. With his scarred face, he had the hungry look of one.

He shouldn’t have been surprised to see his wound healed already. After all, his God had raised him from the dead. What was a simple sword wound compared to that? Even so, he was amazed that he felt so fit after feeling so badly so recently. Even the muscle aches were gone.

Octavian. Such a surprise, although not an unwelcome one. He and Octavian had grown up together. They’d sparred and studied under the same master-at-arms. They’d caroused together, shared one another’s dreams and hopes and ... and then Vaal had died. Painfully, obviously and irrefutably.

Octavian had always been brilliant and driven. He had the right sort of temperament to be a King. He was confident but knew when to be cautious. But he was aged now. And was wise enough to realize he needed an heir in place and soon. And his efforts to reach out to Stefan had come to nought.

He wondered how long Octavian had known his boyhood friend was resurrected and a Guardian priest. Quite possibly nearly as soon as it happened. The Bastard and the Brotherhood preferred people not know that about them. Although there were always those who guessed, if only because they saw a Brother they knew was dead. As had Molly’s governess. Even so... But then Octavian seemed to have spies everywhere. Why not among the reborn? Or was the Bastard himself feeding Octavian intelligence? Vaal could easily see it, since the God had made it clear his first priority was protecting the North. He probably couldn't care less who was King, so long as that king was strong enough to protect the north from a southron invasion.

As Vaal made his way toward Alba through increasingly heavy traffic along the King’s Road he considered what he'd learned from Octavian. And he spent some time wondering just what Donal was up to. Had he misread Donal all this time? Stefan had always thought him to be his man in Octavian’s inner circle, a well connected and affable spy who provided him a way of knowing what Octavian was up to so the rebels could stay one step ahead of any Royal attempt to capture or kill them. But the Egans had always been loyal to the White Rose, the Northern throne. The question was, what was the White Rose in this instance? Vaal doubted it was Octavian, and he doubted it was Stefan. It would be the North, as an entity in and of itself. Perhaps Donal was doing far more what the Bastard wanted than Vaal had ever guessed.

Vaal was nearing an inn as the sun set but decided to ride on. He needed to find Molly as soon as possible and then consider what to do next. He looked round as one of the postroad coaches passed him and he regarded it as it pulled into the yard in front of the inn, Vaal swore he’d caught sight of a face. He nearly rode onward, regardless, but thought better of that at the last moment. He urged his horse toward the stableyard, arriving just as the coach passengers were debarking.

“Not many rooms left,” said a stableyard lad, who was helping with the crush. “You’ll have to share a common room,” the boy added when Vaal finally looked down at him.

Vaal shrugged. “No matter,” he said and flipped a silver coin to the lad who grinned.

“I’ll take good care of him,” he told Vaal as he led Vaal’s horse away.

The disguised priest shouldered his way into the inn just in time to see the passengers from the coach being helped at the desk. He’d already made his features run a bit so he would be harder to recognize even by someone standing close to him. As it was, the woman he’d seen had her back to him. But he recognized her voice well enough. It was Lady Emily Egan. He knew he wouldn't have to search for Molly now. Donal and Emily would meet back up at the very first chance they got.

 

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