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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Freedman [1 of 5]

Granddad, what are you staring at? We've got to go.” The ten year old budding woman brought her new grandfather back to real life again. With a shiver the older man turned his back to the farmhouse. He had seen a fire, as soon as he started to lock the door. A huge devastating fire ruining his house and much of the surrounding buildings.
Nonsense. He had checked everything before he left. And there would be personnel around during his brief absence. The house would still be there when he'd come home from Balmead.

Balmead, the name of the house of Martin's new daughter-in-law. Mother of the ten year young woman and an eight year old prankster who never got bored of teasing his sister.
And now their mother had married his son. The day after tomorrow they'd return from their honeymoon and his son would move in at Balmead. Leaving empty the apartment at Lhamgrange. Martin had offered to keep the apartment ready for Ron and his new family, for visits. But his son had found a tenant. “The grange is not really a profitable place, dad. Can't let an opportunity for an extra income slip by.”

So now his son was married to a woman twelve years older than he -Ron- was himself. Launching himself elbow deep into fatherhood at the same time. The older man silently wondered why his son had made this choice. The latter had already made it clear that he wouldn't stand any comment on that matter.

Granddad, what were you thinking of?” While opening the door of his car for the girl, he loosely mentioned his 'vision'. “Just a silly thought. I have thoroughly checked everything,” he concluded. With a caring look the girl's eyes roamed the grounds and the buildings of the grange. “It's not really going to burn down, please Granddad?”
As the old man shook his head reassuringly, the girl slid into the car. The younger boy seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Seated himself next to his sister. He had clearly overheard her last question, because as soon as his grandfather took his place behind the wheel, the boy blurted out that the grange was in no way safe from burning down. “It happened before. The stable master told me so.” Via the mirror, Martin frowned at the boy. “That was centuries ago. Besides, that was arson.” As if arson was not subject to repetition.

He's riding home alone, his men already having left the day before. The duke had detained only him. What for? He had been waiting all day, only to answer some trivial questions and perform an almost menial task. The senseless waste of time away from home frustrated Ranuld. His heart belongs to his homeland, Leysinghowe. And to the people who depend on him, a mixture of freedmen and serfs, who rather serve him than the duke. And not in the least does his heart belong to his spouse.
Ranuld feels restless, urges on his horse. At least one can travel faster when alone. The road is familiar, so he continues his journey after the sun has set. He will sleep in his own bed tonight, his consort locked in his arms. Even before Ranuld and his horse reach the top of the last hill to cross, the moonlight is no longer their sole companion. There is a familiar, harsh yellow glow glaring up from the hill beyond the valley. The hill of the freedman, leysing's howe.
Fire! Ranuld's heart starts to race, his muscles tighten. The horse bucks, too familiar with fire already, but Ranuld regains control. Now they are galloping down the hill, and across the valley. Moving in on the file of people leaving the village. His people, the men, women and children. With a shock Ranuld realizes that there is no struggle. Most seem to leave voluntarily.
There is some uproar, further away, from men -soldiers- he doesn't know. They carry torches, laughing they move towards two horsemen who stay at the back, as if trying to go by unseen. To no avail. One of the riders is a tall broad shouldered man, no mistake. The other is lean and slim. Fragile as a woman.
Ranuld rides in on them, making sure they will not pass by him without a confrontation.
The large hood does not hide the woman's mouth. Ranuld recognizes the narrow shapely curves at once. Eve, his spouse. Is she riding along with this stranger out of her own free will? Her lips tighten in fear, but not before she has seen Ranuld, heading them off.
Ranuld now veers toward the masculine rider. His posture suddenly becomes familiar. One of the duke's guests. He had left with a handful of men, the day after Ranuld arrived.
On seeing the true husband of his new 'bride', the large knight pulls his sword. He's not impressed by Ranuld's physical appearance. It's the calm decisiveness in the eyes of the betrayed landowner that upsets him. The clatter of swords, the whinnying of the horses pierce through the rumble and crackles of the fires. The unfaithful people halt and turn. As if frozen, they gaze at the two men, who continue their duel dismounted from their horses. As their fight draws on, the third rider, Ranuld's lady, slides down from her horse and approaches the rivals. As the large man pushes the leaner one from him, she steps in. Her uplifted arms go down with force. In her hands a dagger, shimmering golden in the firelight. A moment later the landowner doubles up and sinks to the ground. The two conspirators stare at the still form in dismay. Only for a moment, then they remount their horses and press the bystanders to move on. What use is it, staying at a burned down village that has lost it's proprietor?

When he had finished telling the tale to his grandson, Martin mentally shook off the haunted feeling the history gave him. Through his mirror he looked his granddaughter in the eye. She clearly liked the story as little as he did. She didn't speak, but her eyes begged him to please put a plaster on the wound. So Martin went on.

Graham, Leysinghowe's shepherd, has seen the glow of the fires against the black sky. He has rushed to the village, to find his deserted master lying unconsciously between the burning houses. Hurt badly but alive.
Graham carries him to a remote house that has been overlooked by the arsonists. There he takes care of the wound and nurses his friend those first nights, while his life hangs on a thread only. By then a few of the village's people have returned and they take over the care of the betrayed freedman.
Ranuld doesn't want the large farmhouse restored. So a new modest house is rising on the foundation of the old one. Neither does the village regain its previous glory. It becomes a remote farmstead, a grange. When the owner is at home, worn out travelers are welcomed, fed and rested. But often the house is dark and deserted, because of Ranuld spending time with Graham the shepherd. The flock, under the watchful eye of two dedicated friends, prospers and the grange becomes known as the Lhamb's Grange. The talks of the two men help Ranuld heal and overcome most of his pain. There is just that big scar, where the dagger has pierced his chest and scathed his heart. Ranuld learns that it won't hinder him, as long as he refrains from extreme exercise and deep emotions. On the quiet nights with his sheep herding friend, who is now accompanied by his niece, Gwen, he forgets his mark entirely.

Julia looked relieved. She couldn't bear the idea of the kindhearted landowner not surviving the attack -the betrayal- of his wife. She wasn't after the roughness and kicks like Howard, her younger brother. She is, as Ron informed his father, a hopeless romantic. A bit like Ron then. The old man kept the thought to himself.
Howard wasn't entirely insensitive to romance either. He wanted to know all the details of life in medieval times. Focusing on warfare. He fired off questions at his grandfather at a steady pace. Julia's eyes swerved across the horizon, while she dreamed and thus answered all her questions herself.

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