The Last Lantern
Chapter 28 - Rumors and Lies
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2009
The family at the farmhouse took them in. Molly had a hot bath, and got clean clothes and a soft bed. Vaal and Phillip were similarly taken care of. Food was hot and plentiful and Molly’s stomach was content for the first time in what seemed like forever.
That first night, before they all retired for the night, Vaal gave the farmer and his family an official Blessing. Molly hadn't ever seen one before. It was a whole lot different from what she was used to. The Mother's official blessings were more formal, but then, she admitted to herself, she'd never seen the Priest go to anyone’s house and offer one, well, not for anyone who wasn't dying. You went to the Mother, not her coming to you. Well, at least she'd never come to Rosslyn.
Molly, after hearing Phillip tell the tale of his having seen the Bastard manifest at Vaal’s other blessing, was disappointed He didn't put in an appearance this time. She was also disappointed He’d not said a word to her in her head since.. Well, He had to be busy, right? He was a God after all. He couldn't worry about every 11 almost 12 year old in the two kingdoms.
Phillip looked better when they sat down to breakfast the next morning, Molly noticed. She grinned at how embarrassed he looked when the farmer’s daughter, Rhea, paid him special attention. She fussed over his food, kept asking if he wanted more, smiled and giggled and otherwise flirted with Phillip. Molly found it hilarious, especially so when Phillip’s eyes shot daggers at her when she could not quite swallow a giggle. Why, she wondered, would Rhea find Phillip, of all people, so interesting? He was just, well, Phillip!
On the second day they were there, Molly, Vaal and Phillip hid in the root cellar. The weather had turned sunny if cold. People were apparently venturing out of their imposed isolation. A rider was coming down the lane to the farmhouse. Freeman Horace explained it was his neighbor coming to call. He was sweet on Rhea, the proud father explained. Rhea stifled a sob and ran from the room at that.
Once they were safely hidden, Freeman Horace invited his visitor into the kitchen. He, his goodwife and Rhea all sat at the table drinking tea and eating snowberry pie, which was making Molly’s mouth water. Rhea mumbled monosyllables while the visitor tried to offer her compliments and praise.
The major of the conversation after that, however,was all about war.
The visitor, Freeman Marmen, who was a stone mason or so Molly guessed from the conversation, told Freeman Horace and his wife about what happened at the Inn. Having seen the devastation themselves, Molly was surprised at how he told the tale. He cleaned it up, not mentioning at all about the smell or the blood or all the dead bodies. Nor did he mention the dead baby. Maybe he was doing that so he wouldn't shock Rhea. But Molly herself was in for a shock as the conversation continued. The stone mason, having described the attack, now blamed the atrocities on the Rebels!
Worse, he said the authorities were looking for a Bastard priest who, along with two others he traveled with, might have had something to do with the murders at the inn as well as other similar attacks.
Molly’s eyes went wide when she heard that. She opened her mouth to protest and almost jumped to her feet, but Phillip clamped a hand over her mouth and held her still before she could do either. Even worse, Vaal gave her one of his ‘looks’ that meant sit there and be still and silent. She nodded but didn’t like it. Phillip then let go of her, and took his hand from over her mouth.
Why would someone blame the Rebels, Molly wondered. And even worse, Brother Vaal! She was certain neither her father nor Prince Stefan would do anything at all like what she'd seen. Who would dare to think otherwise? The stone mason was a horrible man for spreading rumors. And she had to sit there, angry and frustrated, as she heard Freeman Marmen call the Rebels terrible names and brand them worse than monsters! But sit there she did, as still as she could manage, silent. She just endured.
Freeman Marmen stayed for dinner, the farmer having heartily invited him to do so. Molly supposed that was the usual thing, after all. It was freezing cold outside and anyone coming by would need be treated as an honored guest, especially if he was courting Rhea. Even if the horrid man were spreading lies and blaming good people for bad things. Molly also supposed that if the farmer treated him differently now, the man would be suspicious. So she sat as still as she could manage and, unremarkably, fell asleep whilst doing it.
Finally, the root cellar door opened and they could leave the cold underground room and rejoin the family.
The farmer eyed Vaal. “You heard, I’m certain,” was all he said as he helped his wife dish out a rich stew for his secret guests.
Vaal nodded as he sat at table and thanked the goodwife. “We saw no evidence of who had committed such atrocities. It might have been Rebels. But just as easily it might have been King Octavian’s sworn guard or even a raiding party sent north by King Stephen.”
The farmer nodded glumly. “It is so, but folks round here choose the Rebels to blame because they want to upset things. And our neighbors are dead, no matter who did it.” The farmer hesitated then added, sounding reluctant to do so, “As the guard is looking for you three, you’d all best ride on at first light. People are beginning to stir now that the weather is better. We’ll be getting yet more folks visiting. I do not dare to let them guess I’ve been harboring you.”
Vaal nodded. “Truly. We do not wish to put you or your family in danger. And someone will be coming to look for us. Soon.”
The farmer looked down at his empty plate..
Phillip raised an eyebrow and regarded Vaal but said nothing.
Molly was curled up warm and snug in her bed an hour or so later when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Vaal leant down and whispered. “Get dressed. We leave now.”
Molly wanted to ask why but thought better of it. She slipped out of the warm covers and dressed as silently as she could. Vaal led her out into the kitchen and through the door out to the front porch of the farmhouse. Phillip was there already. He was mounted and held Vaal’s warhorse and Molly’s Tansy, both of them saddled and ready for the trail.
Vaal boosted Molly up onto Tansy’s back and said, in her head, -As quietly as you can, just walk Tansy away. Follow Phillip.-
She nodded, her eyes wide with fear. Why were they creeping away? The farmer and his wife and daughter had been kind to them. Shouldn’t they be thanking them, rather than slinking off in darkness rather than in the morning as arranged?
But she did as she was told. Phillip led them down the path toward the main road where a stream crossed the road. It had been frozen solid when they’d ridden in the other night but now it was mostly running water. Icy cold, no doubt, but free-running.
Phillip turned off the trail and urged his horse into the cold swirling water. Molly looked back at Vaal for a moment, looking for reassurance. When he nodded at her, Molly urged Tansy to follow Phillip’s Max. Vaal brought up the rear. They traveled, keeping the horses in the stream for perhaps an hour then turned off onto a game trail that crossed the stream. They followed the game trail for perhaps a half hour then reached a roadway.
Vaal urged the horses into a gallop. It was, Molly thought, an hour past midnight. The cold arc of the brilliant stars making up the Lost Sisters constellation, a sliver of one moon, and the full glory of the other lit the road enough to let them race through the night.
As the first hints of dawn lightened the sky, they stopped amidst a group of rocks and trees and broke their fast.
“Why did we leave the farm so suddenly?” Molly asked.
“Because the farmer avoided Vaal’s eyes,” Phillip explained. “He was hiding something. He might have felt he’d have no choice but to betray us should guards have come today. Or he just might have been afraid someone would guess that we were there.”
“We can't trust anyone,” Molly whispered. She tried hard not to make it a wail, but it did sort of come out that way.
“The smallfolk are afraid,” Vaal told her. “Freeman Horace could hardly ignore what happened at the Inn. Even if he wanted to help us, he feared for his family. Best we not make him choose, us or them.”
“What then? Where can we go now if they're looking for us?” Molly asked. “Can no one help us?”
“My order would assist us, even to the death. But if we go to a House we risk becoming trapped there. It would be the first place they would look for a murdering Brother,” Vaal replied, as he eyed Molly thoughtfully.
“What?” she asked.
Vaal shook his head. “Not now. Come let’s put a few more miles between us and Freeman Horace. Then we’ll stop and see what we can do to disguise you as a boy.”
“Disguise me?” Molly asked.
“We know they are looking for a priest who travels with a boy and a girl. We’ll do our best to convince the world we are instead a common man traveling with his two sons.”
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