Disclaimer: The characters and settings belong to the wonderful Ellis Peters, whom I greatly admire. I only borrow them for a little while to play in her amazing world. No copyright infringement intended and no money made.
Time-frame: End of July 1143, at the annual fair.
Summary: After more than a year of living on the road, Liliwin and Rannilt return to Shrewsbury. Alas, it is not the return they have hoped for.
Author? note: How it all ends in contentment.
Two years later, the return of Saint Peter's Fair found Rannilt on the fairground, strolling from booth to booth of the Welsh merchants and craftsmen. Being half-Welsh herself, she wanted to buy a good, warm brychan and nothing else. But taking a look at all the finery and jewellery offered would harm no-one and would not cost a penny, so she took her time. She was carrying her newborn babe, barely a month old, on her arm, while little Liliwin, now two years and a half old, trotted along happily, holding fast to her skirts.
The other townspeople greeted her civilly when they met. The town had had enough time to get used to the fact that their respected master locksmith had married the penniless widow of a wandering conjurer. Quietly but firmly, she had established herself among the notables of the town, staying demurely in the background most of the time yet not backing off when she felt she had to stand up for herself. That Lady Beringar showed such open friendship towards her had done a great deal to get her accepted, of course; as well as the fact that John's mother was so obviously content with this match.
Her reputation had risen even higher last winter, when the Widow Nest had fallen too ill to care for her granddaughter any longer. Rannilt had then insisted on taking in poor Eluned's daughter and raise little Winifred together with her own children. Right now, the little girl was roaming the fair with Mistress Boneth, who like all other people had become captive of her sweet nature and beautiful blue eyes, thus Rannilt was free to walk around with her sons.
She had already selected two or three brychans of her liking and was trying to decide which one to choose, when she spotted a booth she had not seen on the previous fairs. It was the booth of a goldsmith; a Welsh one, offering brooches of an unusual, bold and almost barbaric design, yet of excellent workmanship. One of the smaller pieces caught her attention: it was shaped like a golden flower, with a periwinkle-blue stone in its centre the same colour as Liliwin's eyes had been.
She turned to the goldsmith to ask for the price and the breath caught in her breast. The smith was a sturdy, compact person, by the look of him in his early thirties, his straight dark hair cropped short in a thick cap. His roughly-shaven face was broad but bony, dark-skinned and thick-browed, his eyes deep-set and dark. It was a wholly Welsh face, not truly comely in its brooding manner, yet honest and strong. He turned to the potential customer, too, willingly yet too proud to seem over-eager and his breath caught, too. He became deathly pale under his sun-burnt skin, all the blood leaving his face.
"Rannilt!" he whispered. "Is that you?"
"Iestyn," she replied, equally shaken, and rightly so. The man would have killed her four years previously, out of ill-fated, desperate love, just to protect Susanna. "I never expected to see you here again."
Iestyn, once a journeyman of Master Aurifaber and the secret lover of the master's ill-used daughter, shrugged dejectedly.
"Neither did I, but this is the biggest fair close enough to the Walsh border, and I need to sell my wares and make some money. We've got two babes to feed: twin sons, who are growing fast."
"You married then, after all?" asked Rannilt, not truly surprised. No matter what the losses had been, life had the tendency to go on, after a while.
Iestyn nodded. "I found a Welsh girl; a small, hard-working, delightful creature who made my life worth living again. She's not Susanna – no-one will ever replace her – but we have a good enough life. I'm well content, which is more than most people with plenty of money can hope for."
Their eyes met in brief understanding, both of them knowing which people were meant: Daniel Aurifaber and his wife Margery, trapped in a still childless and joyless marriage, filled with bitter disappointment and mutual accusations. And old Master Aurifaber, still hopelessly wishing for grandchildren, perchance as a punishment for refusing Susanna the right to bear them. Then Iestyn's eye took in Rannilt's refined looks with appreciation.
"You seem to have done well for yourself, though," he said. "Has your minstrel found a rich and steady patron?"
Rannilt shook her head. The loss of Liliwin had faded to a dull ache during the recent years, but it still did ache; just as Iestyn still ached and will ever ache for Susanna. There were truly two of the same kind; or three, if one took John's hidden passion for the same woman under consideration.
"Liliwin is dead," she said simply. "Slain by some drunken riff-raff, right before the town. He left me with a newborn son, though, so in that matter, I've been more fortunate than you."
For Susanna had died in Iestyn's very arms, with their unborn child under her heart, and thus her man had nothing left of her, not even a child. Rannilt smiled at her gold-curled, blue-eyed toddler with tender love. Little Liliwin was truly the mirror image of his late father. The other child, the babe on her arm, had her dark hair and John's brown eyes.
"I see you have two children, though," said Iestyn, with a questioning overtone.
She nodded. "I married John Boneth when the year of grieving was over. He's a good, decent man who helped us selflessly in our greatest need, and I shall ever be grateful for that, as long as I live."
"Grateful," replied Iestyn slowly. "I can see why you are; John has always been a good person. But does he make you happy, too?"
"As you said: I"m well content," answered Rannilt honestly. "He's not Liliwin, no-one will ever come close but he doesn't mind being second best; as I wasn't his first choice, either. We get along amiably enough, and his mother loves me as if I were a daughter of her own flesh and blood. What else could I wish for?"
"Most people would say that we both have everything," said Iestyn with a wry little smile. "A solid craft – or a respectable master craftsman as a husband – children, enough money to provide for our families. Yet we both know that there's more in life than being just content."
"We do," agreed Rannilt. "And we can cherish that memory for as long as we still draw breath. Living in the past could be dangerous, though; it could poison the simple joys of the present. We would be foolish to give up what we have for might-have-beens."
"You're a wise woman, Mistress Locksmith," said Iestyn, still with that wry little half-smile. "And I'm grateful that you could find it in your heart to forgive me for what I nearly did to you."
"Worse things have been done to me since then," replied Rannilt simply. "And at least you've only threatened me, not the ones I love. You were driven by desperate love; and you lost everything on that day. I never hated you; never wished you anything wrong. The only thing I truly felt for you was great pity, for the terrible losses you suffered; losses that I could all too well understand. I'm glad I no longer need to pity you."
"No," said Iestyn slowly. "No, you need not. I wish you only the best, Mistress Locksmith."
"And I wish you only the best, too, Master Goldsmith," answered Rannilt with a faint smile. "May the fair be a profitable one for you."
Iestyn grinned at her and could not resist the urge; after all, business was business.
"You don't want to help me making some modest profit, though?" he teased. "I saw that the flower-shaped brooch with the blue stone caught your eye. It would look very pretty on your bliaut."
"Perhaps so," she allowed. "But I don't think it would be a good thing to bring it home."
"Why not?" asked Iestyn. "Are you telling me that the wife of a master locksmith cannot afford such a small piece of jewellery? That stone has the same colour as your son's eyes."
"And those of his father," sighed Rannilt. "Which is the reason why I do not wish to take it home with me. It would cause too much heartbreak, I fear. Make me look backwards, while I ought to look forward."
"Then choose something else; something that would draw your eyes forward," Iestyn selected a different brooch, a larger one, clearly meant for the cloak of a man; it was round like a shield and adorned with a single jasper stone, the same colour as Rannilt's own eyes. "Here, I believe John would like this one."
Rannilt hesitated for a moment, then she gave in. She felt like giving John, good, honest, big-hearted John that small gift. They haggled for a while, and she finally got the cloak brooch for a price that was, in her opinion, somewhat under its true worth. Perhaps Iestyn wanted to ease his conscience a little; if that was so, she saw no reason why she should protest.
The goldsmith wrapped the brooch into a piece of linen cloth for her and she put it into her satchel. Before she would leave the booth, though, she turned back for a moment, sudden curiosity overcoming her.
"What's the name of your wife?" she asked.
If the question surprised Lestyn, he did not show it.
"Briallen," he answered simply. It was a beautiful name, the Welsh name of the primrose; Rannilt imagined that his wife must have been lovely, too.
"Give her my regards," she said; then she took the hand of her eldest, hefted the babe a bit higher on her arm and left the fairground to buy that brychan he had originally come to achieve.
John Boneth looked up from his work when his wife entered the workshop with the boys.
"Back so soon?" he asked, smiling. "Have you found the brychan you were looking for?"
"I have, and it is on our bed already," she replied, standing on tiptoes to accept his kiss. "I've brought you something else from the fair, though. A gift."
"A gift?" repeated John in surprise. He never asked Rannilt what she did with the weekly four pennies Eddi Rede was still paying her as reparation, but he knew she hoarded them for little Liliwin anyway. This was the first time that she'd bought something aside from the household necessities and she had bought it for him?
"Just a small thing," she showed him the cloak brooch. "I bought it from Iestyn; it appears he's a master goldsmith now. He does lovely work, don't you think?"
"He does indeed; but for him to come back," said John, amazed. "Back where he suffered such a grievous loss!"
Rannilt shrugged. "He's learned to live with his loss and build a new life for himself; as I have," she said.
John looked at her intently. "Have you now?"
Rannilt smiled and kissed his soot-smeared cheek. "Yes, I have. Don't fret so. Now, I need to feed and change our son, he's complaining loud enough already. Don't be late for supper."
~The End ~