The Last Lantern

Chapter 14 - The Boar

@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009

 They reached the Boar Inn as the snow began to fall in blinding thickness. It was too treacherous to trust the roads.  A horse could all too easily put a hoof wrong and then they'd be walking, and possibly freezing to death along the roadside.

Phillip was so numb he forgot how tired he was. His horse, Max, was plodding along willingly enough, until he smelt or sensed a stable and warmth and hay, and then he found a last burst of energy.

Phillip didn't know how Brother Vaal's horse had managed so much better. Only because he was used to such demanding treks?  Granted he was bigger and a war horse. Even so...

The two travelers slid to the ground just outside the stables. A groom met them and took the reins. "Looks like you two just got here in time. Almost a whiteout. In an hour or so the roads will be impassible."

Vaal nodded as he shook snow off his cloak and removed snow sodden gloves. "Any other travelers here?"

"One or two.  Not many people on the road this late in the year. A dangerous place the mountains."

Vaal nodded.  "Take good care of these horses. They serve us well."

"Aye, Brother. That I shall. Might I ask for a blessing later? Once you're warm and fed?"

Vaal nodded. "Yes, of course. I'll see anyone after supper. I expect the publican can give us a room."

"Aye sir, that he will. The Father's his god, but he likes the Bastard well enough too."

Phillip was frowning as he and the priest made their way to the Inn proper.

"What?" Vaal asked.

"They treat you differently this side of the mountains," Phillip pointed out. "Respectfully, sir."

Vaal shrugged. "Perhaps it's the filthy weather. They say my god's name a bit more often as they curse the snows."

Phillip grinned but he knew it was far more than that. Like most people from the Southron Kingdom, he knew little of the North.  The frontier had been hostile for centuries. There wasn't much commerce that traveled the roads between them, and even fewer travelers of his station in life. Mostly bandits and smugglers, or raiding parties, or the occasional Courier and they never said anything to anyone.

As Vaal, ahead of Phillip, shouldered open the door to the tavern room, Phillip could hardly help but note that the level of noise inside dropped to nothing. Everyone was looking at the door, examining Brother Vaal and his much slighter and younger companion.

Phillip braced for what he expected to be a cold reception.  He could easily imagine the one the priest had received at the Last Lantern.

Instead, however, the silence turned to something quite different than it would in the south. The inn keeper hurried over and led them to a table. "You'll be staying no doubt.  My best room is free."

"We'll make do with something less luxurious," Vaal replied as the barmaid came over with hot spiced wine to help them recover from the  cold of a winter ride.

"Please. I insist," the inn keeper pressed. "It does me honor to show the Black hospitality."

Vaal hesitated and then nodded. "Your groom asked for a blessing. If you've a room I might use..."

"Oh, aye. We've just the room for such a thing. I expect others here will want a blessing too. The cook certainly. Perhaps some of those here," he added looking around.

"Thank you, Master ..."

"Emmons, sir. Master Emmons. My goodwife is Sarah. She'll be glad to wish you well when we serve supper."

"Thank her for us as well."  Vaal watched as the publican hurried away.  Then he turned to Phillip.

"Will you ask about.." Phillip began but his voice died away as Vaal put a finger to his lips.

"Listen first. It would be better if they didn't know who we're looking for. Listen, Sir Phillip."

Phillip blushed. "I'm not a Sir."

Vaal's lips twitched as he mixed the spices into the hot wine, and poured for his companion. "If you live through this, I expect you will be."

Phillip was doing his best to listen, but the hot spiced wine, the warmth that was seeping into his nearly frozen body, made his head muzzy.  He started to nod off several times, and had to fight to stay awake. Supper being served awoke him though.  And with the meal came more conversation than he'd heard before. So he listened, as Brother Vaal had instructed him to do.

The Northerners spoke of the blizzard of course, and the long winter that loomed ahead of them. But they also spoke, far more openly, Phillip thought, of their King and the Rebels active in the northern kingdom. Phillip was surprised to realize most of the common men in the room seemed to think the rebels were in the pay of the Southron King. His King. Phillip blinked and frowned down at his food. He nearly felt compelled to stand up for his own country and deny the reckless claims being made against his King. 

Phillip knew one of the princes. He'd seemed a normal enough sort of boy, given the security and the limitations being a royal prince put upon him.  It was hard to sit there and hear him even called a bastard son, the common folk claiming that the Southern king had sired his children on barmaids and whores rather than on his own Lady Wife.

Vaal put a hand on Phillip's arm to get his attention. Vaal just shook his head, and the word listen  was in his mind. He nearly jumped it was so strange to hear a word inside that he'd never heard outside.  But Vaal kept his iron grip on Phillip's arm until he felt the boy settle down. Then he let him go.

After dinner, Vaal was shown to a back room by Master Emmons and his goodwife. There, a small room, but clean and warmed by a nicely burning fire, they left Vaal and Phillip alone, promising to give the priest a few moments privacy before ushering in those wishing a Blessing.

"Perhaps you'd prefer to wait in our room," Vaal suggested.

"No. I'd rather see.. I've... I know nothing of how you worship, or very much about the Ba.. I mean the Heretic. I was only taught that he believed in a religion other than ours, an older one."

"That much is true. And there is not much in the way of worship. There are no septs or holy houses. There are sacred groves or mountains or lakes, true. But they are sacred only to individuals, or perhaps some local groups because they were... touched there.  The Heretic wants no worship nor priests."

"But you're a priest," Phillip replied, shocked.

Vaal grinned.  "I can... channel the Bastard. He talks to me. He does not, I promise you, think of me as a priest. Nor do I think of myself so."

"But..." Phillip replied, confused.

Vaal shrugged. "In the South they are comforted to think of us in that way. It does not harm me. Does not discredit my god. No harm comes from it. So we conform to your conventions."

"Oh." Phillip replied, wondering how many other beliefs he thought of as immutable truths were merely conventions.

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