"The Lone Candle is near the castle," said Ivan. "What do you say we walk? It'd be nice to stretch our legs."
Mally agreed and they dismounted. Sam bent his head and rubbed Mally's shoulder with his nose.
They walked at a pleasant pace and after a while Mally forgot about her encounter with Strap, for the city of Bosc simply glowed. Night had fallen and the street lamps were being lit. They shone brilliant light upon the cobblestone streets and Mally couldn't wait to explore the many shops that would open at daybreak. She had already spotted a few that sounded promising: Sticky Finger Bakery, June's Hats and Gloves, and Puddlemore's Bookshop, to name a few. She wanted to find something to get for her mother … perhaps a new hat?
"Here we are," Ivan said some twenty minutes later.
Mally looked around and spotted what he was pointing at. Opposite them was a small inn with a huge glass window beside the door. It was slightly foggy and Mally couldn't see clearly through it.
Mally and Ivan tied Sam and Arrow to poles outside the inn and stepped out of the cold and into the Lone Candle.
The inn was quiet except for the sporadic conversation from its few customers. Ivan grabbed hold of Mally's wrist and led her gently to a small table in a corner, three tables away from the nearest customer. Mally sat down and looked around the room feeling suddenly uneasy.
"It's seen better days," Ivan said under his breath, also glancing around them.
Then quite abruptly a loud boom of laughter sounded from a corner. Mally and Ivan turned to see six knights laughing loudly at something one of them had just said. Mally noticed that everyone else in the inn had taken tables far from the knights.
"What can I get for you, dearies?" asked a short woman with a round face and graying auburn hair. She hadn't looked at them, as she was busy trying to pull a quill and piece of parchment from her apron pocket. When she had extracted them and spotted Ivan, her face split into a wide grin, her eyes dancing. "Why, Ivan Finley! What a surprise. Where've you been?"
"Blighten," Ivan said, grinning. "Olive, I want you to meet Mally Biddle. Mally, this is Olive Dunker. She owns the Lone Candle."
"It's a beautiful inn," said Mally, shaking hands with Olive.
Though Mally felt she was being polite, she thought she saw something flash behind Olive's eyes. There was certainly something strained about her smile. Over Olive's shoulder, Mally spotted a large painting of a man in knight's attire. The knights laughed loudly again from their corner.
"Thank you. What would you like?"
"Are you still making the stuffed quail?" Ivan asked, rubbing his hands.
The annoyance flashed in Olive's eyes again and for a moment, Mally thought she had cut her gaze to the loud group of knights.
"No. Sorry to say. But I've got a nice pork stew."
"We'll take it. And I'll have the amber ale and …" Ivan frowned at Mally for a second before saying, "and Mally will take a cider."
"It'll be right out," said Olive, scribbling away.
She left their table and disappeared through a door behind the bar. Mally turned her eyes on the knights who were waving their empty mugs in the air for refills. A girl around Mally's age took their mugs as quickly as possible, nearly tripping over her own feet in her haste to leave their table. The knights roared in merriment. Mally's stomach turned from the whistling and jeering.
"They'll stay for hours," Ivan muttered darkly, indicating the knights. "They'll eat and drink and scare all the other customers away and finally leave without paying."
"One knight left us gold," said Mally. She said it more to try to convince herself that all the knights weren't horrible.
"We've heard some stories about that," Ivan whispered, leaning over the table to her. "Some family will have a small bag of gold left in a flower pot. A women will be about to fill her kettle with water and nearly faint from the silver she finds in it. We don't know who is leaving those gifts but we do know they have money—and the knights have lots of that."
"So you think that some knights are good?" Mally asked, hopeful.
"I'm no more sure than you are," Ivan answered, shaking his head. "But someone is trying to thwart the knights. And whoever it is is quite serious about staying anonymous"
"For obvious reasons," said Mally, thinking of Gibbs and imagining how quickly he would turn in a traitor. "You don't have any ideas who these good knights—if we assume they are knights—are?"
"Not enough to feel confident in naming them," Ivan admitted gloomily. "Whoever they are, they act well—they'd be dead if they didn't."
"TO CAPTAIN MOLICK!"
Mally nearly jumped out of her chair. A woman sitting close to Mally had flinched so badly at the sudden outburst that she had flung her mug to the floor. Ivan swiveled in his seat, glaring daggers at the knights who seemed oblivious to what they had caused. Their mugs full, they were cheering and clanking their beers together, waving at the painting of the man near them.
"Disgusting," Ivan spat under his breath.
"Who is that painting of?" Mally asked.
"Painting?" Ivan repeated, confused. But when Mally pointed it out his face soured. "Captain Illius Molick," he explained. His voice dripped acid. "You haven't seen one of those?"
"No," said Mally.
"Humph," Ivan snorted. "Well, get used to it. He's everywhere here."
Mally's attention was gratefully diverted as the same girl arrived with their drinks and a small wedge of daffodil yellow cheddar. She was trembling. Mally smiled kindly in silent gratitude. The girl nodded stiffly, her lips pressed together so tightly they were white. Mally watched her disappear through the door behind the bar as if it were her sanctuary.
"But that does bring up an important topic," Ivan said as if they were continuing a conversation. "It is imperative that Molick doesn't suspect you. He's been trying to sniff the rebel members out ever since the group formed. He's obsessed with catching us."
"Does he suspect you?" Mally asked quietly, suddenly nervous. She felt that it was reckless for them to be discussing such a topic in a room where six intoxicated knights sat.
"If they did, I doubt that I'd be here."
On that foreboding note, they sat in silence, each sipping on their drink and watching the customers. They all spoke quietly, shooting wary glances at the knights who seemed to be reveling in the discomfort their presence had created.
"Ah! And here's Galen!" Ivan said happily, his eyes fixed over Mally's head.
Mally turned in her seat and saw a young man with sandy-blonde hair walk up to them. A curious grin played upon his face as he made his way to them.
"Ivan," he said, once he'd reached their table. "Nice to see you back."
"Pull up a chair!"
"No, I really—don't want to intrude." His gaze had fallen on Mally and Mally returned it with a smile.
"You won't be," Ivan laughed, pulling out a chair beside him. "Sit!"
With a quick glance at Mally, Galen sat.
"Galen, may I introduce to you Miss Mally Biddle. Mally, this is Galen Dunker, the friend I told you about."
Galen and Mally shook hands.
"Pleasure," said Galen.
Mally smiled in reply.
"She's going to help me," Ivan revealed in an excited undertone, leaning toward Galen.
Galen's head shot around and he released Mally's hand.
"Help you?" he repeated a little more loudly than necessary.
"Yes. Don't worry, she knows all about the plan," he rushed, in answer to Galen's sharpened gaze. "You can trust her." Galen looked uncomfortable and he shot another quick glance at Mally before whispering to Ivan, "What exactly are you going to have her do?"
"What I told you I'd have her do," Ivan responded rather impatiently and mouthed, "Snoop around the castle."
Galen opened his mouth, but closed it again. With an agitated glance at Mally, he scooted his chair closer to the table and leaned his head nearer to Ivan's. Mally had the distinct impression that Galen didn't want her to hear what he wanted to say.
"Does she know," Galen whispered so low that he was barely moving his lips, "does she know the—"
Mally had a feeling she knew what Galen was trying to say without her noticing and decided it was time to speak up.
"I know the dangers involved, Galen, thank you," Mally said clearly, breaking up Ivan and Galen's conversation. "Ivan has already told me what I'll be doing and I understand my situation."
Ivan looked pleased and took a large swig of beer, but Galen looked mutinous.
"Galen! Galen, where—there you are!"
A boy who looked about fourteen with pale freckles on his face rushed to their table.
"Galen, I've been looking all over for you!" he gasped, slightly out of breath. "Mom's hav'n' a fit. The potatoes burned and Sarah still hasn't shown."
"Tell her I'm coming," Galen told the sweating boy, who nodded and hurried off.
Galen turned to Ivan and rose.
"I'll talk to you later. Nice to meet you," he said to Mally.
"You worry too much," Ivan told Galen's retreating back.
Mally watched him disappear through the door behind the bar, feeling uneasy.
"Don't let Galen upset you," Ivan said. He picked his mug up off the table to make room for two bowls of stew.
"He didn't seem too happy about me helping," Mally replied uncomfortably. Would everyone else in the rebel group act the way Galen had? Would they all think she couldn't handle the dangers of spying on the knights and the king?
"Like I said, he worries too much," Ivan said quietly, a kind smile on his face. "You'll be fine."
Mally gave him a nervous smile and drank some more of her cider.
It was just before Mally and Ivan had finished their dinner that the knights in the corner left. Just as Ivan had said, they simply rose with much talking and laughing and left. Galen and his mother stood at the bar and simply stared after them stone-faced. Mally watched Galen turn to his mother and say something, but she didn't reply. Mally thought that her jaw was clenched.
After dinner, Ivan went off in search of Olive to ask if there was a room available for Mally. He returned to tell Mally that a room was ready and paid for.
"Paid for?" Mally repeated, turning slightly pink. "You didn't need to pay for my room."
"I wanted to. It's the least I could do"—he dropped his voice—"seeing that I'm asking you to risk your life and all."
Mally laughed, but it was a short one.
"Where do I put Sam?"
"There's a stable that you can use. It's down the next street. It's"—Ivan looked suddenly embarrassed—"called Clip-Clop. Tell the fellow there—name's Bob Kettle—that I sent you and that I'm paying for Sam's stay."
Mally blushed even harder.
"No arguments," Ivan said firmly. Then he added, "I can go with you, if you want."
Mally stood up and Ivan had to take a hasty step back to give her room.
"No, you've done enough for me," she said, drawing her cloak around her shoulders. "Thank you."
"All right then. Shall I escort you out the door?" Ivan asked, bowing slightly.
"Yes, you shall," Mally replied, grinning and taking his arm.
It was bitterly cold outside and Mally couldn't wait to get back inside the Lone Candle. Sam nickered softly at the sight of Mally and she felt a stab of guilt at making him stay so long in the cold street. She quickly untied his reigns with numb fingers, said goodnight to Ivan, and headed in the direction that he had indicated.
The few shops down this long street were spaced much farther apart from each other and focused on tending to horses. Mally felt that she was walking toward the edge of the city's walls. Trees and grass grew here and when she reached the end of the road, she found a large fenced-in meadow and yes, at the other side of the meadow ran the giant stone wall surrounding the city. To her immediate left was the stable Ivan had mentioned, for in the dim light from the city wall's torches she read from a wooden sign hammered into the ground: Clip-Clop. The words looked as though they had been carved into the wood with a knife.
"Need a place for your horse?" asked a thin, wiry old man, who stepped into the light of one of the streetlamps. He was slightly stooped, and a great deal of white hair covered his head.
"Yes, sir. I was told this was the place to go."
"If you want the best place for your steed," the man exclaimed, waving a knobby cane in the air. "This way, if you please!"
Mally smirked at Sam who looked taken aback by the tiny, exuberant man. Gently, she tugged him into the stable.
It was well built and very roomy. The large framework and thick-boarded walls kept the cold at bay. The ground was a dense mat of straw and a few peaceful neighs drifted from the other stalls. Sam sniffed the air.
"The name's Bob Kettle, missy," said the old man.
"Mally Biddle," and she shook hands with Bob, who had a surprisingly strong grip.
"Tha's quite a nice horse ya got there, Mally," Bob Kettle said with a wide, toothy grin, taking in every inch of Sam.
"His name's Sam."
"Fine name," said Bob, nodding his approval. "Fine. Cross between a Urian and a West Moor Black?" he asked, suddenly business-like.
"Correct," said Mally, amused by the intensity of the whiskery man's gaze. "You know your horses, sir."
"Call me Bob! Call me Bob!" he exclaimed, still not taking his eyes off Sam. "Everyone does. I don't like formalities."
Bob now hobbled around Sam, peering up at his withers.
"Good work horse—bloodlines like that—must be sixteen and a half hands tall?"
"Seventeen!" Bob nearly fell over with excitement. "Goodness me! Don't get to see a seventeen very often. No, sir, Bob Kettle sure don't!" He slapped his knee and shuffled around to Sam's other side.
"Where did fine Sam come from?" he asked. Mally could only see his skinny legs but she heard him patting Sam's side.
Mally had heard this question often enough not to take offense for it was clear that she could never afford a horse like Sam.
"Sam was given to me by Allen Dobbs—the horse breeder in Blighten," Mally explained, speaking to Bob's knees. And then to answer the question that always followed, she added, "He's a close family friend and I helped him raise Sam."
"That's quite the friend," said Bob and Mally imagined Bob's white eyebrows rising into his hair. "Maybe I need to get in contact with this Dobbs. How old is fine Sam?" he asked.
"He just turned eight," Mally replied looking at the surrounding stalls. "Bob? Do the knights' horses stay here?"
"What? Knights?" his voice squeaked. He shuffled quickly back to Mally. "No, no. They've got their own pristine quarters for their beasts." He dropped his voice low. His eyes were wide and Mally thought that she saw fear reflected in them. "I wouldn't let a single one of those creatures into my stable."
"The knights or the horses?" Mally asked smiling.
"Neither if I can help it," said Bob, his voice quivering slightly. He glanced over his shoulder to the opening of the stable. "But some knights do come here. They look 'round at the horses staying here. Size 'em up."
Mally felt a chill that wasn't due to the weather outside.
"They don't take horses?" she asked, aghast.
"Sometimes," Bob nodded.
But instead of feeling panicky about losing Sam, Mally laughed.
"I'd like to see any knight try to ride Sam. Ivan Finley sent me … he told me that he would pay for Sam's stay here," she added, slightly embarrassed.
"Fine. Fine," said Bob. "He's a good lad. Good money. I'll speak to him in the morning."
Mally walked over to Sam and rubbed his nose.
"I'll be back in the morning," she whispered and nodding to Bob, she left the stable and turned toward the Lone Candle. Wrapping her cloak more tightly around herself, she walked quickly, scanning the dark streets for knights.