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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Freedman [2 of 5]

Balmead turned out to be a small cottage. The front yard added to the doll's house impression it made on Martin. Was his son going to live here, forfeiting the free space all around the grange? The older man shook his head. Doubting the sanity of his son even more. Once inside he had to change his mind, however. The rooms were furnished with good taste and modesty, leaving more space than Martin expected. And the garden at the back... such a beauty. A tiny terrace surrounded by some late blooming bleeding hearts, a small meandering path, bordered by harebells -campanulas-. Along the path, cut off by the border, was a beautifully kept garden, with rock beds and flower patches. Asters, anemones and irises mostly. The path lead to a small wild rose garden, complete with bench and pergola. There was a gate in the wall surrounding the garden. It was still in use for it wasn't overgrown. Behind it, Martin could only see bushes. A pattern  pointed out that there was a path from the gate through the bushes to... the older man was not about to explore it yet.
A little bit off center in the rose garden was an old well. The children, in Martins wake, started chasing each other around it. A picture dawned in Martins mind. What if he were to make a photo of them, at the well? A 'blow up' of the children would be a nice welcome home present. In the village center he had seen one of those newfangled photo stores that develop photos in just one hour. They could go there tomorrow. In the mean time they could do some shopping to replenish the stock. But now it was time for the three of them to get settled and have dinner.

Martin had secretly hoped that the children would go to bed by themselves. Like they had done at the grange. But being back on their own territory, they immediately unpacked their old habits, loitering and squabbling. So upstairs he went, with a dramatic sigh.
He managed to distract them from their quarrel by promising them they could each ask one more question, as soon as they were in bed, being tucked in by him. The idea appealed to them. They didn't want to waste time any more, concentrated on what would be important enough to be their last question of today.
Howard wanted to know what they would be doing the next day. Julia had a different question.
Granddad, can you tell me more about Ranuld of Leysinghowe. And of Graham's niece?”
' Granddad' shook his had. Sat down on the edge of the girl's bed anyway. “I don't know much, And what I do know, may not be to your liking. Maybe you'd better make up a story about them by yourself.”
That was not Julia's way. Especially now she knew that things weren't good, she didn't want to shirk the truth. Better to know all there was to know, than be left in the twilight, where darkness may not seem so dark, but where the shadows are larger and make such exaggerated movements.
All I know is that Ranuld, Graham and Gwen were together when a group of robbers tried to steal part of the flock. Gwen fought as hard as she could, like the men. But she was captured and taken along with the stolen sheep.” Martin looked at the girl. Did she really want to hear this? Wasn't a beautiful fancy better fitting this romantic girl?
I heard the shepherd died after the fight and Ranuld left the grange for a while to look for Gwen. Or maybe he just went away to mourn the loss of his friend. Nobody knows exactly.”
I'd like to know if he ever married Gwen, granddad. Is there no one who can tell me?”
Martin shook his head again.
But... my new dad, and you, are called Lessing. That comes from Leysing., doesn't it? So Ranuld must have had children.” Julia was not about to give up her dream.
Missie, Ranuld could have married someone else. Or some other inhabitants of the Leysing Hill may have taken the name Lessing. It wasn't for centuries yet that last names were chosen.”
A tightening at the corners of the girl's mouth showed she was not willing to accept Martin' s explanations. She turned her back to him and closed her eyes. Maybe it was better to think of the outcome all by herself.
Martin tucked in the blankets around her. He did not yet dare to kiss his new -and only- granddaughter, so he left her room after a whispered 'goodnight' .
Downstairs he poured himself a drink and got settled in an easy chair. He had lit a fire in the fireplace to chase out the damp atmosphere that had taken over during the absence of the lady of the house. The heat was making him feel a bit drowsy. Glass in hand he stared into the flames. The fire hissing, spitting up sparkles like a starlit night. Around it are Graham, Gwen and Ranuld, camping out at the bank of a respectable stream, the Alder. Graham is cutting out a tall, thin figure from a branch of willow wood. A woman's body as far as Ranuld can judge from the work so far. He and Gwen watch the shepherd's hands working in concert, feeling what there is already and cutting away more of the wood. Meanwhile their conversation flows from matters of the grange, the flock and of their souls in a kaleidoscopic mixture. The shepherd's dog is closing the circle. He watches the flames, while his ears scan the area for anything out of the ordinary. Ranuld leans on one elbow, turning his eyes to the sky now. He praises himself more than lucky . The Lhamb's Grange and its small faithful 'clan' of followers. The nights out here with his friends, full of peace and wisdom. He has all he needs. Gwen watches the wave of deep content move over his face. An indescribable impatience creeps up inside, prompts her to leave the circle. Under the pretense of  inspecting the ewe that has trouble feeding her newborn.
Suddenly the dog pricks up his ears. The footsteps he hears are not Gwen's. The dog jumps up, barking and growling. Ranuld and Graham follow him on cue, the shepherd tossing aside his woodcarving.
Now they can hear some sheep bleating in protest. And muffled men's voices, first in a hurry, then surprised.
Surprised to see themselves confronted by such a young buck, who doesn't even need a shave. The young buck throws himself on one of the men, who is handling one of the sheep the robbers came to steal. The man fights back, discovering that his opponent is but a young woman. He calls out to his friends and they immediately change plans. Gwen is to be the main part of their loot.
Graham and Ranuld cut in, an extended battle is the result.
The four comrades are not able to stop the robbers. They take off, taking Gwen with them and leaving behind a badly wounded Graham. Ranuld tries to go after the robbers, but it's useless. With his condition, he is no opponent the robbers should reckon with. He stumbles over to his friend, gritting his teeth to ignore the pain from his old scars.
Graham is breathing audibly and with difficulty. His lungs filling with blood. The dog is lying along side of him, forlornly watching his master suffer. The wounded man's friend, the freedman, helps him to sit up to ease the discomfort. “Save my Gwen” Graham's eyes plead with all the power that is left in him. Ranuld's eyes fill up with tears. His throat is so tight, he can only nod. He'd do everything for his friend, who saved his life years ago. Why oh why can't he save his life in return, right now? “Not just save her,” he hears his friend whisper. The eyes begging him even more. “Protect her.... …. ...if you can...”
With that last remark the eyes of Graham change. They become as caring and worried as they had been when the shepherd had tended for him, Ranuld. It's the last exchange of the love that had grown between the two friends. Because love has many forms. It is not limited to what most people call love, that complicated and sometimes frustrating attraction between people that makes their body cry out with greed, silencing the sounds of their souls.
Graham's breathing stops, his body is limp. Nothing that responds to his friends protests. For Ranuld tries to hold on more tightly to the body, as if it would keep that sacred life inside it. He moans and shakes his head in denial. His grief is so deep that his scars hurt even more than they did during his fight to try to save Gwen and Graham.
For a little while Ranuld sits with the lifeless body in his arms. But he has to let go, he has made a promise to his friend. And not only does he owe it to Graham, he owes it to Gwen as well. She is just as good a soul mate of him as her uncle.
As he drags the body of his friend to where the shepherd's last resting place should be, close to the bank of the Alder, the dog follows him. Head lowered, tail between his legs. Suddenly the dog lashes out at Ranuld, bites him in the arm and runs off. Disappearing into the bushes.
After he has put the body in the right place for the burial, to be done by the people of Lhamb's Grange,
he ties up the wound with a piece of cloth of his own shirt. It's time to return to the grange. To send his people over here and to look for Gwen by himself.

Once Martin has his mind made up, he sticks to it. So the photo of both Julia and Howard at the well was taken that morning. Since there was not a lot to do in the tidy cottage, Martin left the two to play and went back in alone to make a little shopping list. After that he called the children and they set off to the photo store that 'granddad' had seen at the center of Carlington. The children started to discuss the home coming of their mother, leaving out their comments on the new father, seeing that his father was now driving the car... Martin let them talk and looked ahead, his eyes on the road. One hand on the wheel. The other one he rested, there was such strange pain in it. He had probably sprained the muscle more than he first suspected this morning. While chopping some new logs for the fireplace In the back of his mind, it was as if a film was started. The man reappeared, the man he had seen in his dream last night, when he had dosed off so close to the fireplace.

At the grange Ranuld picks up the news that a band of robber barons has been spotted in the area, on their way to their kin, Sir Morgan of Whittingdale.
The same Morgan that had taken Ranuld's wife, Eve, for his bride. It strikes Ranuld as a cynical jest that for a second time he loses a companion to the same family. But this time he will go to Morgan's castle and free his friend. After all, she hadn't taken off out of her own free will. She had fought against it with all her might. Hadn't it been for his limited power, due to his scars, Ranuld might have even prevented her kidnap. It has been a long time since he had resented the hurt that Eve had caused him.
A different pain, however is slowly taking over. His arm, with the dog's bite, throbs and burns. By and by the burning spreads through his entire body, it even seems to affect his thinking. It's because of his strong will power, that Ranuld manages to reach a small village, on the road to Morgan's castle. His arrival did not go by unnoticed. As he reaches the tavern, the owner walks out to meet him. On seeing Ranuld's condition, he orders the stable boy to help him. Together they carry Ranuld down the road, to a small house, hidden behind three large yew trees.

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