Originally written under the pen name Scott Zachary.
Molly swept the last of the dirt off the stoop and wiped her hands on her apron. She frowned at the grime coating the rough-hewn walls of the large manor and the army of weeds beginning their annual invasion into the garden.
Those tasks would have to wait.
For now she forced herself to be content with a clean, well-swept doorstep. It was a token of the fraying dignity she clung to, and made the poverty seem less real. Father Roark might call it pride, which, as everyone knew, was a sin.
She reminded herself to ask him about her potentially sinful doorstep sweeping after mass that evening.
Leaning the broom against the doorframe, she pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her shoulders, adjusted the simple coif that covered her tightly braided, silver-streaked hair, and picked up her basket. With a quick tug on the latch to make sure the door was closed, she set off down the long, winding carriage run that led to the main road, walking slowly along the edges of the ruts and doing her best to keep out of the mud and cowpats. The cloudless sky shone with a brilliance appreciated only by those who live in lands blanketed, more often than not, by heavy gray clouds. Distant hills glimmered like an emerald scarf thrown lazily across the horizon. It was a glorious day, but Molly felt no joy in it. There was very little that she found joy in at all.
She wondered idly if apathy to the glory of God’s creation was also a sin. She would have to ask Father Roark about that one as well.
The light afternoon breeze kicked up a faint odor of wet earth and apple blossoms as she passed by the garden. An old tree sat wearily, its boughs dusted with small, snowy flowers. Molly picked her way toward it, collecting a bouquet as she went. At the foot of the trunk was a small pile of stones, blackened with years of moss and lichen, adorned with a simple cross carved from the heartwood of an oak. She laid the flowers on the tiny cairn and crossed herself.
Kissing her fingers, she touched them to the smooth bark of the tree tenderly, and the breeze brushed the pink-tipped blossoms against her cheek in reply. She smiled sadly. The blossoms would never bear fruit. As if in sympathy, since the day she had buried her stillborn twins under it, the ancient tree had been as barren as she was.
The empty place inside her no longer ached, but somehow the nothingness that she felt was worse. It was a stony, bare patch of ground where no seeds of joy could find purchase. It was as barren as her womb, as barren as the apple tree.
Her husband had been patient and gentle with her sadness at first, but when she failed to conceive another child, her grief became too much for him to bear, and he retreated further and further from her: first into drink, then into brawling, and eventually into gambling and debt and the good Lord knew what else.
The other women in town said that it was God’s punishment for marrying a Protestant. Father Roark promised she would heal from the loss if she poured herself into the service of others—and she tried—but often she felt there was nothing left to pour. The well was dry.
Molly gave the old tree one last reassuring pat before continuing back towards the main road. She passed by empty fields—brown scars on the land—patchy with hoar and thin clumps of weed. Some had been intentionally left to lay fallow; others were neglected for wont of labor. Many lay barren and torn, even now, from the hooves and fires of conquest and rebellion.
When she had been a small girl, Molly’s father would take her along this same road in a fine carriage. She would wave to the men and women in the fields and throw sweets to the children and laugh, thinking nothing of the morrow or what it might bring.
Innocence is wasted on the young, she mused.
The sound of a horse neighing broke her reverie, and Molly turned to see a small group of travelers on the road making their way toward town. A simple cart, piled high with bundles and baskets led the group, pulled by a mountain of a man. Copper kettles, tin pots, and brass pans hung from the sides, jangling as the cart ambled and creaked along the ruts. A frail young woman sat on the driving board, holding an infant, and several young children walked wearily alongside, splashed by the muddy wheels. A large draft horse with a patchy coat trailed behind, favoring its foreleg.
Straggling in the distance, an assortment of families followed, some pulling handcarts, most laboring under the heavy loads of their few worldly possessions.
“Top of the morning to you, madam!” the man shouted when he spotted Molly, waving his wide-brimmed hat at her. He put the cart down gently and stood panting, a toothy grin shining through his ferocious red beard. Molly approached the strangers warily.
“And the rest of the day to yourself,” she said.
“We are making for Kilcurry. Is it far?” The man mopped his brow and squinted at her.
“Not far at all,” Molly replied. “I am headed there myself.”
She could not remember the last time she had seen walking folk—the Pavee, as they called themselves—not since the English had driven them out decades ago. Honest, God-fearing people thought them little better than beggars and thieves. Most of her neighbors thought less of them than that. This particular group looked half-starved, many with a foot or two dancing dangerously close to the grave.
“Although, you might want to consider passing through,” she added. “People here do not take kindly to traveling folk.”
The man considered this for a moment and looked back at his lame horse. He shrugged. His wife said something to him in a dialect peppered with so much slang that Molly found it incomprehensible. The man shrugged again.
He turned back to Molly. “Seems to be the way of things, I fear, but as you can see, I am in need of a farrier, and we could sorely use provisions.”
“Strangers they do not like,” Molly said, “but coin they do. They will take your money same as anyone, I would expect.”
The man exchanged a worrisome look with his wife. “Ah,” he said to Molly. “Coin we might be short on—” He paused before adding hastily, “But we are no beggars—we have many skills that would be worth trading.”
“I doubt they have much want for a tinker’s skills,” Molly said. “But you are welcome to try your luck.”
The man hefted the cart and dug his boots into the muddy ruts. With a grunt and a mighty heave, he started the wheels moving and pulled it up to where Molly stood.
“The name is Ward, Sean Ward.” He motioned with his hat toward the cart behind him. “My wife, Aideen, and our treasures.”
The children looked at Molly sideways, mischievous eyes glinting through the road dust and grime caked to their faces.
“I am Lady Gregor, but you may call me Molly—everyone does.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Sean began to pull the cart beside her and looked out across the muddy brown fields. “Tell me, who owns this poor patch of God’s Earth?”
“My family,” she replied, following his gaze. “Or we did, I should say, until Old Noll stole it from us.”
Aideen spat on the ground at the mention of Oliver Cromwell, the long dead and much despised Lord Protector of the old Commonwealth.
“Cromwell forced our fathers off the land they worked too,” Sean said. “And so, we wander.”
“You were lucky to stay on the land,” Aideen added. “Most landowners wouldn’t have permitted that.”
“Oh, it was no luck,” Molly replied. “We were driven away like everyone else, and our land was given to an enterprising Scotsman; but I came back when I was grown and convinced his son that he could not live without me.”
Aideen gave her a sly nod. “Sharrk girl. So this is still your land, after all, ain’t it then?”
“Yes,” Molly said, unable to suppress a thin-lipped smile. “I suppose it is.”
Sean considered this. After a moment he said, “I cannot say I would enjoy being fixed to one place, whether bond or free.”
Molly snorted. “You mean to say you prefer this life—on the road day and night without hearth or home? Exposed to the elements year ’round? There is something to be said for four solid walls and a dry roof!”
“This is my home,” Sean replied, looking out across the horizon. “My palace walls extend beyond the hills; my ceiling, the heavens; and my bed, the heather.”
“Very poetic,” Molly said. “And yet, to be driven from place to place, with your wife and children in tow? Despised and hated by all?”
“You country folk and we Lucht Siúil will ever be at odds,” Aideen said. “Freedom is always hated by the slave.”
Molly clucked her tongue. “A slave now, am I?”
“What she meant—” Sean hastily added.
“I know what she meant.” Molly held up her hands to stop his apology. “I am not offended. There is space enough in this wide world for the both of our kind to live in peace. I remember what it means to be persecuted, even though I fear many have forgotten.”
“If only others could see things the same way,” Aideen said, “and not treat us as feral animals; as something less than human.”
“It is the way of the world,” Molly replied. “It has ever been so and ever shall be. Man cannot tolerate another man simply following his own God-given conscience.”
“I think, my new friend, that you are more like us than you realize.” Sean winked at Molly and laughed into his beard as he muscled the cart forward.
As they walked, he recounted tales of their travels, full of joy and hardship, of friends and loved ones rounded up by English soldiers and shipped off to labor in distant lands, of children lost in the night. He told stories of heartache, punctuated by wonder—of druid circles built by giants and secret caves hidden by white-tipped waves as tall as mountains. For Sean, every storm cloud had a silver lining, somewhere, if you looked hard enough.
Molly found their company an unexpected relief to the tedium of her daily routine and was disappointed when her own small village—with all of its charming delusions of grandeur—came into view. To hear the townspeople speak of Kilcurry, one would think it was Belfast. In reality, it consisted of little more than a drafty old church built out of the ruins of an ancient fort, a decrepit public house reeking of cheap liquor, and a small cluster of homes and shops perched haphazardly on a low hill overlooking a modest river.
“God be with you,” she said when they entered the village, directing Sean to the stables near the public house in the main square.
“God and Mary be with you.” Sean tipped his hat and Aideen waved the baby’s hand. The other families nodded silently as they filed past. Molly watched them for a while before making her way down a narrow lane to a small butcher shop on the outskirts of the village.
She passed under a gaudy-colored sign of a cow playing fiddle to a dancing hen. A tiny bell jingled as she walked into the shop.
The shutters had been thrown wide open, and flies buzzed freely in and out through the shafts of sunlight that painted the floor, freshly strewn with sawdust. An old woman with long white hair wrapped in a multicolored scarf attacked a rack of lamb, wielding her cleaver with the precision of a surgeon and all the grace of a lumberman. She looked up when Molly entered and put down her knife.
“Shalom, Molly!” she cried cheerfully, carefully wiping her hands on her apron. Shuffling around from behind the counter, she grabbed a tray of sweetmeats and held them out to Molly, who took one and chewed it greedily.
“Absolutely delicious, Mrs. Bloom, as always.”
“Well, you have Ruth to thank for that,” the old woman said, taking Molly’s basket. “After her father passed—may his memory be a blessing—I thought my days of sweets were over, but Ruth has taken up the mantle, so to speak.”
Placing the tray back on the counter, she pulled a false bottom out of the basket and went over to a wide row of cupboards at the back of the shop.
Molly popped another piece of the candied fruit into her mouth and looked around idly. The shop was unusually clean: tidy, well organized, with every surface carefully scrubbed, polished, and freshly painted.
“Is Ruth still employed with the family in Dublin?” she asked.
Mrs. Bloom rummaged deep in the back of the cupboard shelves. She pulled an old, gold-gilded crucifix from the darkness, brushed off the dust with her sleeve, and placed it carefully in the basket. Digging around some more, she produced a silver chalice and paten, a stout candlestick, and a carefully folded bundle wrapped in canvas. She added them to the basket as well.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “To be completely honest though, she has been miserable. Not with the family of course, but Dublin. She cannot fathom the city—says she feels like Moses: ‘A stranger in a strange land.’”
“Often I feel like a stranger in my own land,” Molly said.
“True!” The old woman laughed and carefully replaced the false bottom in the basket, tucking a clean sheet of folded muslin overtop. “What’s for dinner this week?”
Molly caught herself looking furtively out the window. “A bit of lamb, if you please.” She checked the coins in her apron pocket and corrected herself: “On second thought, I think half of a hen sounds lovely.”
“Don’t be silly.” Mrs. Bloom wrapped up a decent-sized lamb shank and placed it in the basket. “You pay me what you can, when you can. Your father did the same for us.”
Molly took the basket. “You are generous to a fault,” she said. “It is enough that you—well, you know.” She tapped the bottom of the basket conspiratorially.
“Nonsense.” Mrs. Bloom waved her away. “I am old. Allow me my sentimentality.”
Molly thanked her again and wished her a good day. She exited the shop and stood for a moment, letting the sun warm her face, before setting off down the lane leading to the center of town. As she neared the square, she began to hear shouting. She hurried toward the angry and accusatory voices, exiting the narrow street to the sight of a mob surrounding the Pavee caravan.
Mr. Clayton, a short, well-dressed young man with a carefully waxed mustache and impeccably groomed goatee, stood at the head of the mob, brandishing a silver-tipped cane in Sean’s face. “Be off with you!” Clayton shouted. “Away! Be gone!”
The Foreman, Mr. Kirkpatrick, lumbered forward to join Clayton, and a small gang of his lackeys fanned out behind him, holding bricks and clubs.
“Please, sirs,” Sean said, spreading his hands out in supplication. “We mean no trouble. Each of us is willing and able to earn our keep.”
“Vagrants and beggars, the lot of ye,” Kirkpatrick grumbled. Several townspeople murmured their assent.
“All we ask for is some bread in exchange for an honest day’s work,” Sean said. “The children are hungry, and—”
“The Devil take you!” Clayton said. “We have troubles enough without you pikeys and your heathen popery.”
“Ye heard the man,” Kirkpatrick added. “Ye best get, while the gettin’s good.”
Molly stepped back into the shelter of the narrow lane and watched the altercation coldly. It was none of her business; it was best not to get involved. The walking folk were strangers, and certainly not her responsibility. She turned to go back the way she had come, and paused. A memory of something Father Roark once said, a lifetime ago, nagged at her mind.
It had been springtime, like now, but somehow brighter, fresher—the world still alive with wonder. She and some other children sat on a grassy hillock with the young Jesuit. He was newly arrived from Clermont, and was quoting scripture from a missal with a lilting, juvenile voice that held little of the grave passion born in later years. He was telling them a story, of a king sitting in judgment, and something to do with sheep and goats. She remembered thinking it a somewhat silly story; he was a boring storyteller.
The king was rebuking his people for turning him away when he was a stranger; for not feeding him when he was hungry, or clothing him when he was naked. Molly remembered the people had been shocked at the judgment, and had asked their king when had they seen him in need and not helped him? She looked back over her shoulder at the strangers in the square. Father Roark’s young voice echoed in her memory: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
The least of these, she thought as she watched Sean appeal to the angry mob. Certainly none were lower in this poor country than these wayfaring strangers. Molly said a prayer to calm her nerves and walked purposefully over to the crowd, pushing her way into the center. Sean looked at her questioningly, but she quickly shook her head and boldly turned to Clayton.
“What is all this hullabaloo over a poor rabble of walking folk?” she asked.
“This is no concern of yours, woman,” Clayton replied.
“Do not presume to tell me what is and is not my concern.” She flushed indignantly at the young man’s disrespect.
“You best learn your place,” Clayton said between clenched teeth. He pushed her aside with his cane and leveled it once more at Sean. “Last chance, pikey.”
Although he towered head and shoulders over Clayton, Sean backed down and held his hands out defensively. “We mean no harm—”
“He said, ‘be gone!’” an angry voice from within the crowd yelled, and a rock came hurtling through the air. Sean ducked and the jagged shard flew past him. Molly watched in horror as it slammed into Aideen’s head with a dull smack. The woman fell over limp across the driving board.
Molly dropped her basket and ran over to the cart to help, but the Pavees quickly closed in to block her. She stepped back in a daze, watching everything as if in slow motion.
The sound of Sean and Clayton’s steadily rising voices brought her back to the moment. Sean loomed over Clayton, seething, and grabbed the smaller man by his collar. “This is on you, you son of a cur!” he hissed.
“No!” Molly cried, dashing in between the two men. She put her hands against Sean’s chest, trying vainly to force him back. He looked down at her, his light blue eyes now dark gray with anger. “If my Aideen dies, I’ll kill ’em, I swear I will.”
“You heard the scoundrel,” Kirkpatrick shouted to the crowd. “He means murder!”
“Hang the bastard and leave him to the crows,” a townswoman shouted.
“Yes!” a man joined in. “Hang the lot of them!”
As the crowd began to take up the chant, the Pavees surrounded Sean protectively. Molly stood in front of them and spread her arms out, as if she could cover the entire group, shielding them all with her small, old body.
“Get out of the way,” Kirkpatrick said.
“Bah, she’s a popist like the rest of them,” Clayton spat at her feet. “Fat Irish cow—we should hang her too, by all rights.”
“What the Devil is going on out here?” a voice bellowed, heavy with a Scottish brogue and thick with drink. The crowd parted as an enormous, beefy man with wild copper hair and a thick, drooping gray mustache and goatee stumbled through. He stopped when he saw Molly and frowned. Resting his meaty hands heavily on his stout walking stick, he turned to Clayton and Kirkpatrick. “I can’t hardly hear myself drink, what with all the caterwauling going on out here. What’s the meaning of this?”
The townspeople fell mute, and even Kirkpatrick knew well enough to hold his tongue.
“Filthy pikeys, Sir Gregor. Trying to start a row,” Clayton said, breaking the silence.
“Aye, and I suppose that’s who ye were a-callin’ fat cows, and not my Molly I see standing here afore ye?” Gregor cocked his head to the side and raised an eyebrow.
“Of course not—” Clayton said.
“Coz—” Gregor picked up his walking stick and slapped the club-like crown into his palm. “I’ve half a mind to teach you a lesson in manners, lad, magistrate’s son or no.”
Clayton spread his hands. “Now, Sir Gregor, there is no call for violence. This here is a civil matter, and none of your concern—”
Gregor jabbed Clayton’s chest with his walking stick. “I’ll be the judge of that, lad.” He raised his eyes over the crowd. “Have ye all no something better to do?”
While the mob scattered, eager to be as far from Gregor’s infamous temper as possible, Kirkpatrick took a step toward the landowner and cleared his throat.
“Sir Gregor, if I might—” he began.
“What ye might do,” Gregor interjected, “is see to your work, Mr. Kirkpatrick.”
Kirkpatrick nodded meekly, backing off. Gregor looked back down at Clayton and asked, “Are we done here, laddie?”
Clayton straightened his collar and coughed. “For now, Sir Gregor, but I will be sure to let my father know how you have been meddling with the Crown’s affairs.”
Gregor laughed uproariously and clutched his impressive belly, wincing with the effort. “The Crown, now is it? Ye do that, lad, and give Her Majesty my regards at court while you’re at it.”
Collecting what dignity he had left, Clayton spun on his heel and marched with Kirkpatrick out of the square. Molly moved to Sean’s side and helped him clean the blood off of Aideen’s face. The young woman breathed in shallow gasps, staring vacantly beyond them. Gregor shouldered his way through the Pavees and stared intently at the deep gash the rock had made.
“Nasty bit, that,” Gregor said, clucking his tongue. “’Ave seen worse though. She’ll live, I’d expect.”
“Ross!” Molly cried. “The poor woman is half-starved and already sick with fever.”
“Och! It’s in God’s hands now, woman,” Gregor said, throwing his hands in the air. “No use screaming at me like a damned harpy.” He looked at Sean, who was gently stroking his wife’s hair. “You’d best be making your way, lad. I may cast a big shadow, but the good folk of Kilcurry won’t abide pikeys lurking about.”
Sean’s eyes remained transfixed on his wife. “She cannot travel like this,” Sean whispered.
“He is right, Ross,” Molly said. “It would be her death.”
“Insufferable woman,” Gregor grumbled. “Fine, ye can make camp on my land—for the night,” he said to Sean. “But don’t get comfortable, and keep your distance from the town.”
Sean stood up and grabbed Gregor’s hand. “God bless you, sir. Thank you.”
Gregor shrugged it off. “It is my wife ye should be thanking, lad. I’d best have nothing to do with ye.”
“There is a low spot by a fresh stream not two miles from here,” Molly added. “It is sheltered from the winds and easy enough to reach from the road. You are welcome to stay there.”
“Again, God bless you,” Sean said. He picked Aideen up in his arms. Offering their thanks in low voices, the other Pavees took the cart and followed Sean out of town, back down the long road they had come in on.
Gregor stared up at the clear sky. “It’s a fine day,” he said. “I think I’ll walk ye to the house.”
Molly picked up her basket and carefully inspected it for damage. “If it pleases you,” she said.
He lit his pipe and fell into step beside her. After they had walked for several minutes in silence Molly asked him, “Are you not forgetting something?”
“And what might that be?”
“Your horse, Ross.”
“Bah,” he said, and waved his pipe aimlessly in the air. “Lost it to that swindler Wesley over a damned fool wager. ’Twas a bloody shame, too. Good horse.”
He chuckled and put his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his unaccustomed embrace, feeling the stress and fear she had bottled up leech off her back, absorbed by his reassuring strength.
“Aye, that’s a good lass. Hold me up, my dear, for I fear I may be a wee bit drunk.”
She shook off his arm and raised her eyes to the heavens. “The Lord preserve me from this insufferable man.”
When they reached the drive, her husband left her to follow after the Pavees and show them the way to the hollow. Molly watched him swagger away with the slightly weaving, ponderous gait of a heavy man accustomed to living in a state of perpetual drunkenness. She was still shaken from the events of the morning and would have preferred not to be alone, but life with Gregor—she reminded herself—was a life of solitude all the same.
She walked back to the manor slowly, pausing to carefully sweep the morning’s dusting of dead petals off the doorstep before entering the house. Humming a melancholy tune, she went into the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
“WHERE’S MY SUPPER, WOMAN?” Gregor cried as he lumbered into the kitchen.
“I have only the two hands,” Molly replied. “Either help out, or stay out.”
Gregor laughed and sat down heavily on an oak bench, a book in one hand and his pipe in the other. “Nay, I think I’ll sit here and watch ye.” He propped his boots up on the table, and Molly stopped stirring the pot and shook the ladle at him.
“I will not have your muddy boots and foul pipe smoke in my kitchen,” she said.
“Och, mind the book!” he said, shielding it from the flying bits of broth and stew. “Can’t a man watch his wife cook his dinner?”
Molly screwed up her eyes and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “Go back to your drink and leave me be. I have work to do.”
He obediently put his feet down and tapped his pipe bowl into the waste bin. “You’re a fine woman, Moll.” He brushed the clods of dirt off the table. “You did a good thing today, a grand thing.”
“I think those may be the nicest words you have spoken to me in more years than I can remember.”
He smiled coyly and leaned back. “Aye,” he said. “I can think of some other nice things we’ve not done for many a year, too.”
“Och!” Molly turned back to the hearth and waved him away.
Gregor laughed and left the kitchen. “’Struth, woman,” he shouted from the next room, “I’m nearly starved.”
Molly sighed and poured the pot carefully into a large earthenware jug, which she placed gently beside her basket on the table. She ladled a portion into a small wooden bowl for her husband and carried it into his sitting room.
He sat lounging in an overstuffed chair that he filled to overflowing, staring into a small peat fire that smoldered in a cavernous fireplace. Paintings of his ancestors, landscapes, and long-forgotten battles fought for space on the walls.
Gregor eyed the tiny bowl suspiciously as Molly placed it on the small table beside him. She mocked a curtsy. “Your dinner, my lord, is served.”
“Wha? This wee bit of nathen?” He spread his arms widely. “Look at me, woman. I’ve one foot in the grave from hunger—skin and bones, I am—and you bring me this? Where’s the rest of it?”
“You will live, I would expect,” Molly replied. “We have guests.”
“Guests? Bloody hell, woman. You’ll be my death.” He looked mournfully at the stew beside him. “I said they could stay on my land—I didn’t say anything about feeding them!”
“I thought you were proud of my charity towards those poor, wayfaring folk.”
“Aye,” he replied. “But that was afore I knew it would mean starvation.” He slowly shook his head dramatically, but then winked at her. “Get to it then, iffin ye must.” He reached out to slap her behind, but she swatted his hand away.
“Save that nonsense for the serving girls at the public house,” she said crossly. “I will have none of your shenanigans, you boorish man.”
He slumped back into his chair, muttering as he shoved more tobacco into his pipe bowl. He placed a match in his tinderbox and struck a flint to light it. “Ye shouldn’t believe every tittle-tattle ye hear,” he said through the short puffs he took as he lit his pipe with the spunk.
“Do not talk into your beard at me.”
“I said,” he replied loudly, “I suppose you will be sneaking off to mass again tonight.”
Molly put her hands on her hips. “I may be. What of it? Do you suddenly disapprove?”
“Nae, I was wondering, is all.” He took a long pull from his pipe. “I’ll wait up for ye.”
“Why in God’s name would you do that?”
“Mebbe I miss yer company.”
“Och! For Pete’s sake, man, eat your supper before it goes stone cold.”
She returned to the kitchen, shaking her head. Pulling her coat over her shoulders and hanging the basket in the crook of her arm, she hefted the heavy jug in both hands. The rough earthenware was warm against her chest, like a small child.
“Ross,” she called, “would you get the door for me?”
He met her in the darkened hall, the candle he held casting wild shadows on the barren walls. She could tell from his labored breathing that he had hit the bottle the moment she had left him to himself.
He opened the door, and she paused as she crossed the threshold. She scowled at the clumps of mud he had tracked in earlier, handed him the jug, and grabbed the broom. Gregor sighed.
“You know it will bother me to no end if I leave it in this state,” she said as she swept.
“Crazy old bat,” he muttered.
“Glad to see you back to normal, my dear.” Molly took the jug from him and proceeded down the path that would lead to the Pavee camp. Gregor began to close the door, paused, and called after her, “Be careful, Moll!”
“I will be back before midnight, you old ninny,” she replied over her shoulder.
Dusk was settling in. The sun slowly fell behind the distant hills, painting the scattered clouds in wide swaths of blood-orange light. The moon, nearly full, shone brightly in the sky, and the first evening stars began to make an appearance. Molly was thankful for the moonlight she would have later—stumbling around in the darkness was never wise, but neither were lanterns.
As she neared the camp, she could hear the hauntingly soft music of outlawed pipes and harps. A deep baritone voice joined the strains, singing an ancient, forbidden song in the native tongue.
Sean stopped when Molly entered the hollow. He waved a cheerful hello and ambled over to her.
“How is Aideen?” Molly asked.
“She is resting, but much better, thank the Lord.”
“I brought this for her.” Molly handed Sean the jug of stew. “I am afraid it is not much, but it is all I had.”
“There should be enough for everyone to have a bite or two—God bless you.”
“I am sorry I could not bring more.”
Sean put the jug down gently and grabbed her in a great bear hug, lifting her clear off the ground. “You are an angel from heaven!”
She patted his back awkwardly until he let her down again.
“Aye, well, it is nothing more than we Christians must do.” Molly self-consciously straightened her rumpled clothes.
“Ah, yes…speaking of that…there is one more thing you could help us with.”
“Of course—if it is within my power.”
“In town, they said you were a popist, like us—”
“We were wondering, is all, that is—is there a priest hereabouts?”
“I know these are dangerous times for our men of the cloth,” he hastily continued. “But many of us have not had communion for months—for some, years—and my infant son has yet to be baptized.”
“It is a great risk for him, but I will talk to the priest and bring him to you if I am able.”
Sean smiled broadly. “Again, God bless you.” He motioned to his companions sitting by the small campfire. “Will you join us?”
“I am afraid I must be going,” Molly said.
“A shame—I think our company would do your spirit good. You seem a sad woman.”
“These are sad times.”
“And yet blessings—such as your own dear self in our time of need—continue to pour forth from the heavens!” Clasping Molly on the shoulders, he kissed her first on one cheek and then the other. “There is always something to be joyful for, Molly, especially in these sad times. God be with you.”
“And with you,” Molly said.
She found his exuberance and familiarity improper, and yet, strangely revitalizing at the same time. She did her best to compose herself. The Pavees took up their instruments, and the old songs followed her into the night as she walked out of the hollow, echoing in her heart while she followed familiar trails.
She reached the oak grove early and knelt on a bed of clover. Moonlight bathed the clearing, and the weight of untold centuries thrummed through the old trees with an electric charge. Molly gazed at the thick braid of stars stretching across the heavens. Although the law of the land forced them to meet clandestinely, and at great personal risk, she was secretly thankful to be here in this ancient and holy place, and not a musty old church.
Surely God could not be contained in four stone walls? she thought to herself, and laughed out loud. Father Roark would most likely consider such thoughts blasphemy; she decided not to ask him about that one. Pulling a small rosary out of her sleeve, she crossed herself and began to pray.
When she was nearing the end of her prayers, she heard a rustling in the brush and looked up to see Father Roark entering the clearing. He was a thin, wizened old man, with a smartly trimmed white goatee and mustache, and kind black eyes. He took off his hat when he saw her and began to say something, but she held up her rosary, and he nodded for her to continue.
While she finished praying he pulled a pile of bramble aside to reveal a large granite slab, supported by three squat boulders. A simple cross was carved into the face of the giant rock. Father Roark carefully brushed off the stray leaves and branches.
Molly crossed herself and tucked her rosary away. She walked over to the old priest and placed her basket on the low stone table.
“Good evening, Father,” she said. He smiled warmly in reply.
She fished a square of folded white linen out of the basket, spread it out across the face of the slab, and handed Father Roark his vestments. Listening intently to the quiet chanting of his prayers as he dressed himself, she carefully arranged the crucifix and other items on the makeshift alter.
“I hear you had yourself an adventure today,” he said quietly, pulling a worn old book out of the basket.
“Aye, you might call it that.”
He thumbed through the missal thoughtfully. “It was quite a risk you took, helping those people.”
“It was the right thing to do.”
“I am proud of you.”
Molly shrugged as she lit the candle. “If an old woman cannot speak her mind, what hope does the world have?”
Father Roark laughed. “You, my child, were speaking your mind long before you had gray in your hair.”
“Aye, that I was,” she said, smirking as she helped him drape a heavy linen veil over his face. When Molly had first asked him about the unorthodox disguise, he had explained that it was both for his safety, and to protect the souls of those attending: if pressed by the authorities, he did not want anyone lying to protect his identity.
As they prepared the altar, scattered groups of people trickled into the clearing. Molly knew them all, but few would meet her eye. It was nothing new to her—she had become accustomed to being shunned after her scandalous elopement to the Protestant landlord’s son. “Little people with little minds,” her husband used to say. In many ways she preferred being an outcast. It saved her from having to take part in their petty squabbles and vicious gossip.
Molly joined the others as Father Roark led them in the sign of the cross. He turned to face the altar and began quietly singing the mass to himself. The small congregation knelt and silently prayed. As Molly worked through the decades of her rosary, snatches of the priest’s monotone chants drifted past her on the wind. Their prayers entwined in a comforting dissonance that enshrouded her in a blanket of tranquility.
She contemplated the Sorrowful Mysteries as she counted off the beads, ten times each: sorrow for sin, purity, courage, patience, and above all, perseverance. She imagined herself watching her Lord bleeding from every pore in the Garden, scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, dragging His cross on broken shoulders, and, finally, nailed to the timbers and raised up for all to behold.
She could not help relating somewhat.
There were other Mysteries to ponder, and Father Roark often encouraged her to focus on them instead, but Molly found little in life to be joyful, or glorious. She meditated on what she knew.
After the mass, Molly walked with Father Roark through the grove, supporting him with one arm as he hobbled heavily on his cane. They came to a break in the trees overlooking the river and stood in silence.
“You told me you wished to speak to me privately,” Father Roark said. “Tell me, old friend, what great evil have you wrought upon the world this time?”
“I have nothing to confess—”
“Nothing to confess?” he teased.
“It is about the Pavees…” she continued.
“What of them?”
“They wish for nothing more than to have a priest attend to them.”
“How do we know we can trust them?” Father Roark’s face was grim. “They are strangers.”
“And who is my neighbor?” Molly recited pointedly. It was something the priest had often quoted himself, from a parable of a man who had given much, and risked much, all for a complete stranger.
“I have business to attend to, but could return in a fortnight.” He leaned on his cane and sucked on his mustache thoughtfully.
“They cannot wisely loiter here. What business could be greater than their souls?”
He considered this for a moment longer and nodded slowly. “Yes, of course,” he said. “You are right. It must be tonight.” He straightened his old frame and held out his arm for her. “Take me to your lost sheep.”
Molly led him down the forest path, but even before they broke through the trees, she could smell the smoke.
She stood paralyzed by a nightmare memory of hiding in a burning hayloft, desperately pressing small hands against her ears to block out the sound of her mother’s screams; of her father, the most powerful man in the county, begging for mercy on his knees; of hiding in rotting logs and sleeping under brambles, the smell doggedly sticking to her for months as she ran from the English soldiers. Even now, sometimes, she would awake in the darkness with her nightgown soaked through and the fetor thick in her mouth and nose.
The suffocating, acrid odor was sharply sweet and musky, like a cheap perfume gone rancid. She could taste it, the coppery film coating her tongue, laced with a razor’s edge of sulfur.
“I know that smell—” she whispered to Father Roark in horror.
“Oh no, dear Lord Jesus, no!” Molly cried.
“Molly!” he shouted after her, but she was already running down the trail.
The pungent, stinging smell grew stronger as she neared the hollow. Ahead, the treetops glowed orange, and monstrous shadows played out against the ethereal smoke as it rose into the night sky. Bracken clawed and tore at her dress, and roots reached up to trip her as she stumbled into the glen.
It took several moments for her mind to process the horrors that met her eye. In the center of the glade, a once magnificent willow burned like a pyre, its heavy branches that sheltered her picnics as a young girl now ablaze with hellfire. Grotesque shapes twisted and writhed from the boughs—shapes that Molly realized were the bodies of the Pavee women and children, hung to burn while they still lived.
Below the tree their men littered the stream, bleeding out into the icy water where they had fallen defending the camp. The handcarts smoldered, reduced to a white-hot bed of coals. Molly walked in a trance, her heart catching in her throat when she found Sean. He lay facedown, his beard feathering out into the water and streaming tendrils of blood.
Hooded figures splashed among the dead, dragging the corpses up to the bonfire. It was only when they turned to face her that Molly realized she was screaming.
One of them crossed the distance to her quickly, waving his arms to shoo her away. “Molly, you damned fool woman,” he cried. “Be gone!”
She recognized Kirkpatrick’s voice instantly, but stood rooted to the ground, gagging on the vile taste of the carnage. Words formed in her mouth, but she could only manage a hoarse croak. Her stomach threatened to betray her as she choked down the bile.
“Hang her with the rest of them and send her to the Devil!” another of the hooded men screamed. Clayton, she realized. He pushed his way past to grab her, but Kirkpatrick caught him by the arm.
“Think, man,” he said to Clayton. “If you harm her, it may be our necks stretched from a limb next.”
Molly found her voice and pointed accusingly at the two men. “I will see you all hanged for this,” she said. “My husband—”
“Your husband,” Clayton interjected, “is a drunkard and a Jacobite. The Devil take him—either to Hell or Barbados—frankly I do not care which.”
“Get off my land,” Molly hissed.
“Your land? Not for long!” Clayton laughed. “My father will see to that, once he learns you have been harboring rebels and heretics. He will take the land and see both you and your husband in chains.”
“That may be,” she said, narrowing her eyes and drawing out her words. “But for now this is still my land. Get off my land.”
“Bah!” Clayton waved her away dismissively. He ordered Kirkpatrick to get rid of her and stomped angrily back to the bonfire. Removing his hood, the foreman put his hand on Molly’s arm.
“Do not touch me,” she spat.
“You would be wise to forget this, madam. Sir Gregor may have been a favorite of the merry monarch when they were lads, but these are dangerous times to be a friend of the Stuarts. Clayton has the ear of powerful men in Parliament: it will not go well if you cross him further.”
“Mark my words, Mr. Kirkpatrick—there will be a reckoning for this night.”
Kirkpatrick shook his head sadly. “There will be nothing of the sort, and you know it. Please go home. Don’t make things worse.”
He left her and followed after Clayton. The hooded men abandoned the bodies in the stream, melting away into the night without another word. Molly stood by force of will alone, shaking with anger; when the last of them faded from view, she stumbled over to Sean’s body and knelt beside him, cradling his head in her lap and rocking him like a baby.
The soft hand that rested gently on her shoulder stung like a slap.
She scurried away from the touch, cowering in the bracken and shielding her face. Father Roark knelt beside her. “Let us pray,” he whispered.
“Pray? I cannot pray to He who would forsake these people.”
“Even to He who was Himself forsaken in the Garden? Come; let us intercede on their behalf. Their suffering is over, and now they may find their eternal peace—”
Molly shook her head and pushed him away. “I have kept faith for my whole life, Father. I never doubted. But what good have my prayers done?”
She clutched her hands to her chest and cried, “Is it not said that the Lord gives, and that He takes away? Well, he has taken everything from me, and He has given nothing in return. Nothing! I am tired of fruitless prayers. The Virgin Mother does not intercede on my behalf; God does not hear me.”
“His ways are not our ways…”
“Damn your platitudes, Father,” Molly snapped. “If this night was His will, then He is a Devil!”
“Molly, do not blaspheme!”
“Damn you and damn Him and damn—”
Her curt reply was interrupted by a piercing cry over the crackling of the smoldering tree and the murmuring of the stream. Molly leapt to her feet and ran to the sound, splashing through frigid water toward the short, hiccupping wails coming from the tall reeds.
Pushing the long stalks aside, she caught her breath as a shaft of moonlight fell on a small basket bobbing gently in the water. She carefully bent down and lifted up the lid. The infant inside fell silent and eyed her suspiciously.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena,” Father Roark reverently whispered, clasping Molly’s shoulder tightly.
She carefully picked up the small child and held him close, wrapping him in her shawl. “How is this possible?”
“With God, all things are possible. This child is a blessing, a gift from God, preserved from evil to be brought up in Christ.”
“But who will raise him? No one will take in the child of a traveler.”
“No one? Not even you?”
“Me?” Molly laughed bitterly. “I am an old woman, Father. The sun set on my days of motherhood long ago.”
“The Lord would appear to think otherwise.”
Molly regarded the baby in her arms silently. He had already fallen asleep, nestled tightly against her. If this child was a gift from God, it was a bittersweet one.
“The child must be baptized,” Father Roark whispered, looking at Molly intently. “And that cannot happen unless someone claims responsibility for him.”
“There is much to consider…”
“There is nothing to consider!” Father Roark’s eyes locked with hers. “Either you accept God’s will or you refuse it. The choice is yours to make, but remember: He will not forgive us tomorrow for choices we could have made today. Accept this child now, let him be baptized, and join his fate to yours, or wash your hands of him forever.”
“Baptize him now? You cannot baptize him now. The stream is fouled by blood!”
“It is sanctified,” the priest replied, “by the blood of martyrs.”
The child stirred, and a faint scent of apricots cut through the stench that poured from the smoldering willow. It made her heart ache. To accept this child may be God’s will, she thought, but it would make me more of an outcast than I already am—
Little people with little minds, she reminded herself.
“So be it,” she said.
“It will be your duty to bring him up in the Faith; to teach him to love God and our neighbor.” Father Roark paused to lay his hand on Molly’s shoulder. “Do you accept this?”
She felt the small heartbeat fluttering against her breast, and the lonely place in her soul ached to be filled.
“I do,” she whispered.
“What name do you give this child?”
Molly looked down at the tiny boy in her arms. Her face softened and she smiled sadly. “And she adopted him for a son, and called him Moses, saying: ‘Because I took him out of the water.’”
Father Roark dipped his hand into the cold waters of the stream. “Then, young Moses, Ego te baptizo—”
He poured the water over the infant’s head three times.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
Molly kissed Moses’s forehead and whispered, “Amen.”
Far ahead, a light danced through the dark trees like a will-o’-the-wisp. Molly held the child tightly and stiffened, sucking in her breath. She exhaled deeply with relief when her husband came into view. He was dressed in only his nightshirt, his hair even more wild than usual. In one hand he carried a lantern; in the other he grasped a massive cavalry saber, its keen edge glinting with the glow of the bonfire.
Gregor stopped running when he saw her. His eyes were wild and bloodshot. “I’ve been looking everywhere—” The words died in his throat at the sight of the destruction in the hollow, and of Molly, covered in blood, a baby in her arms.
“What the Devil?” he roared.
“I fear the Devil has been out in force tonight,” Father Roark replied.
“The Pavees,” Molly added quietly. “Clayton and his mob set upon them.”
“Christ’s wounds,” Gregor swore. “Are you sure it was him?”
“I saw him with my own eyes.”
“Oh no, not on my land, he doesn’t!” Gregor said, and began to march past them.
“It is already done,” Father Roark said.
“Bah! I’ll have his head mounted on my gate. Out of my way, Father.”
The priest spread his hands. “Has not enough blood been shed this night? Come, Sir Gregor, put away your sword and pick up a spade; help me lay these poor souls to rest.”
Gregor muttered angrily to himself. “What of this child?” he asked Molly.
“I have sworn to raise him. He is our son—if you will accept him.”
“A fine time to ask me such a thing!” He considered the child sternly. “A popist for a wife and a pikey for a son. Dear Lord, what’s next? Boils? Plagues of locusts?”
“Do not take that tone with me, Ross Gregor,” Molly said sternly. “I have always done only what I felt was right. If you despise me for it, put me away and be done with it already.”
He hung his head shamefully and sighed. “I—I am sorry, Moll. It was the whiskey talking. This is—it is too much to ask of me right now. Once you and the bairn are safely home, I will see that his people are taken care of.” He paused, staring in the direction of the hollow. “And, for your sake, that they are avenged—”
“Leave vengeance to the Lord,” Father Roark interjected. “Nothing good can come of following that dark path.”
“Sometimes,” Gregor said, his head snapping back up fiercely, “the good Lord needs a helping hand.”
Molly touched her husband’s arm gently. “I want to see Clayton’s head on a pike more than anyone—” She noticed Father Roark’s look of horror. “I will not lie, Father—it is the truth.” She pulled Gregor’s face down and looked into his eyes. “But if you kill him and are arrested, where will that leave me? Where will that leave this orphaned child? There are other ways to deal with a man like Clayton.”
“What would you have me do?” Gregor asked.
“Have him sent away. You still have powerful friends. Let him swelter and rot in the West Indies or freeze in Rupert’s Land.”
“Yes,” Father Roark added. “The man is prideful enough, he would think it was an advancement.”
“And rob me of the satisfaction of seeing him bleed out at my feet?”
“Och!” He shook his sword at Molly and the priest. “Fine, I will not harm the magistrate’s son. But Kirkpatrick and the others have no patron. I will make them suffer—”
“I will hear no more of this,” Father Roark said, holding up his hands. “I must see to the dead. Join me, Sir Gregor, when you are able?”
Gregor grunted in reply. He held out his lantern for Molly to light the way. When they arrived at the manor, he opened the door and followed her in. He leaned heavily on his sword and looked at her for a long time in silence, chewing on unspoken words.
“Spit it out, man!” Molly said, her eyes flashing.
“Ye are not a temperate woman.”
“I make no apologies.”
“Capricious, some would say.”
“I have been called worse.”
“Rash, proud, and headstrong.”
“I will have no lectures from a man reeking of liquor, not tonight,” Molly snapped. “You can catalog my sins some other time.”
“Christ’s wounds, woman, I was listing your virtues,” he cursed, and moved past her brusquely into his drawing room. Molly began to call out after him, to chastise his blasphemy, but held her tongue. He had reached out to her, in his awkward way, and she had refused him, again. It was second nature to judge him harshly for his vices, and far too easy to blame him for leaving her alone for so many years—but the truth was much harder for her to accept: she had been the first to leave.
She took Moses into her room and sat on the edge of the large bed, rocking him gently and singing an old lullaby. He snuggled against her, and she could feel the empty hole in her heart gradually filling, brimming over as she sang. Tears that had not flowed for years came running down her cheeks.
“Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lan,” she sang, barely a whisper. “Hushabye loo, low loo.” She lay down beside him, wrapping them both in a nest of blankets, and wiped her eyes, staring at him until her lids grew heavy and a fitful sleep overtook her.
Molly awoke to Moses tugging and chewing at her hair and sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the shutters. She found Gregor in the drawing room, leaning wearily against the mantel with a large clay jug of whiskey in his hand. His pants and frock were caked with mud and soot and splattered with blood, and his hair was matted with sweat and brambles.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
He made no reply.
“Ross? What have you done?”
“What the future will hold for us, I cannot say,” he eventually said to the flames. “But I will promise you one thing—”
He threw the jug into the fireplace, smashing it against the stone. A blue blaze flared up, licking and curling hungrily at the spirits. He turned to Molly and looked at her with clearer eyes than she had seen in twenty years, as sharp as a falcon’s.
“I will not have our son raised by a drunkard.”
MOLLY BOUNCED MOSES ON her hip in the small yard behind Mrs. Bloom’s shop. The turbulent spring had bled quietly into summer, with autumn following meekly after; it was one of the cool and sunny September afternoons that she especially cherished.
The old butcher’s widow led a lamb on a thin rope. “If that child grows any fatter, I may have to buy him from you,” she teased. “There is nothing I like better for Sukkoth than potato-apple pancakes and plump Irish babies.”
Moses blew raspberries at her and reached out with sticky fingers for the piece of candied fruit Molly held in front of him.
“I dare say everything has grown plumper over the summer,” Molly said.
“Including ourselves!” Mrs. Bloom chuckled. “Best to enjoy it while we can. Good harvests are few and far between.” She tied the lamb to a peg driven in the hard-packed ground. “Although I think your husband might have something to do with this year’s plenty.”
“He has definitely taken management of the plantation more seriously than in years past.”
“You mean more than ever,” Mrs. Bloom corrected, kneeling down beside the lamb and scratching its chin as it bleated contently. “Everywhere I look, there he goes, with that oversized walking stick of his, cracking heads and mending fences. He may have been a jolly old lamb when he was sauced in the public house—but it would appear Sir Gregor is a lion when sober.”
“Aye.” Molly smiled. “That he is.”
“I heard that Mr. Clayton will be handling negotiations for the new endeavor in Hudson’s Bay.” Mrs. Bloom pulled a long knife out from her belt and began to hone it with a smooth stone. “It brings a smile to my face, imagining him dickering with savages and Frenchmen in the tundra.”
Molly laughed. “Indeed. He left to meet his ship a week ago. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to watch his carriage cross over the horizon.”
“And with much bluster and little fanfare, no doubt. Other than one or two featherbrained love-struck young ladies, I think we are all glad to be rid of the man.” Mrs. Bloom carefully ran her thumb along the edge of the blade. “Speaking of poorly regarded men, no one has seen hide nor hair of Mr. Kirkpatrick for months now. I did not think his debts were grave enough to make him flee the country.”
Molly shrugged and said casually, “It is a mystery.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Bloom added, “one does hear other rumors, from time to time.” With a deft motion, she slit the lamb’s throat and eased it gently to the ground.
Molly watched the blood pooling out onto the dry earth. “I do not give much weight to the wagging of tongues,” she said.
“A wise policy.” Mrs. Bloom cleaned the knife on her apron, then hobbled over and pinched Moses’s cheek. “Fortune has smiled on you. It brings an old woman joy to see a sister happy, and no one deserves it more than Molly Gregor.”
Molly was happy, she realized, truly and un-deniably. Not with the giddy joy of unburdened youth, or the dizzying exhilaration of a new lover, but with a profound serenity that came with the discovery that life—her life—was what she made of it: no more, and no less. Father Roark preached that all things happened for a reason, according to a master plan. As actors on a stage, humanity played out the divine script, free to shape its role within the confines of God’s will.
She rejected such nonsense.
God may nudge, she imagined, and He may prod; but the actions of men, chosen freely, were the true Prime Movers in the universe. The ripples of each and every independent act spreading out, swelling like the tide, lifting some to fortune, dashing others against the rocks. And in this symphony of chaos, Molly had realized her peace.
Later that afternoon her husband found her standing by the cairn in the garden with her head bowed as Moses toddled around the rosebushes. She heard her husband approach and kept her eyes closed, listening to the wind playing through the leaves, the crunching of the child’s feet on the gravel path, and the distant honks of wild geese flying overhead. The air carried a crisp promise of the changing seasons, and the sun was warm on her face.
“Well, would you look at that!” Gregor cried.
She followed his gaze high into the gnarled branches of the old tree, where she saw something that made her heart jump.
“Moses! Moses, come quickly!” she called.
Stumbling on unsteady legs, the child ran over to her. She scooped him up and raised him high above her head into the leafy boughs.
“Appon! Appon!” he cried, and stretched out tiny hands to pluck the rich, red fruit off the branch.
Gregor ruffled the boy’s downy hair as Molly squeezed him tightly. He struggled against them, and she let him back down. They followed their child through the garden, arm in arm, as he stumbled among the flowers, holding his prize proudly above his head. In the distance, a fresh blanket of dead leaves blew across the neglected doorstep.
It could wait.