Wizened and ancient, the old man stared at Ama and Bean. With one knobby, wrinkled hand trembling as it clutched the railing above the steps, his other held an old linen blanket draped over his shoulders. Like a poor imitation of a regent’s cape, it drooped onto the floor and down the wooden planks of the staircase before him.
“Macule!” Ama shouted next to Bean.
His eyes squinted under a bald and furrowed brow, twitching looks at the young pair frozen below him. Macule started a slow and wobbling decent down the staircase clad in the shift Ama had dressed him in. The shirt hung on his bony frame like a limp sack, falling well past his knees while his hands barely emerged from voluminous sleeves.
Ama and Bean exchanged worried glances before she gulped and spoke again. “Mistakes were made, Macule. You’re lucky to even be alive!”
Hobbling down the steps bow-legged, Macule’s calves and bare feet were laced with varicose veins. They jutted like gnarled sticks from the bottom of his flapping shift, and the old man’s hard squint and droop-faced glower remained unchanged at Ama’s words.
The bent old man reached the earthen floor dragging his blanket behind him as Ama tugged Bean’s wrist and pulled him along with her. Macule’s bald, liver-spotted head looked up at her with a face of deeply folded wrinkles.
“Macule, let us help you. Are you well?”
The ancient figure cocked his head and hard squinting stare to the side.
Ama and Bean passed sideways glances before she spoke again. “Macule, are you well?”
The hunched old man took a few steps forward, licking his lips and a set of gums that retained a single yellowed tooth. Leaning closer to Ama, he lifted a shaky hand to a large, flappy ear.
“What?” he said with a dry, creaky voice.
Ama looked down at Macule perplexed. “Are. You. Well?”
Macule shook his head and scratched the fine white hair that still clung to his temples. “I’m sorry young Mame… You’ll need to speak up!”
Ama blinked, then leaned down to practically shout in his ear. “ARE! YOU! WELL!?”
Macule looked up wide-eyed, then nodded. “Oh! You know to be truthful, Mame… I’ll admit that I don’t quite feel myself!”
He waggled a bushy white eyebrow at Ama, then gave a raspy cackle. “I must apologize to you young-folk, because I’m quite the fool today!”
Ama looked to Bean and watched him shrug his broad shoulders before turning back to Macule. “Uh, that’s very noble of you… Perhaps we—”
“—Yes! It seems that I wandered into your house and fell asleep in your bed!”
She blinked and shook her hair. “No, Macule! WE put you in the bed! You—”
“—Eh?! What?” the old man said straining to hear.
“WE put YOU in the BED!” Ama shouted waving her hand towards herself and Bean.
Macule looked at Bean one-eyed and puzzled. “Um, HE put me in the bed? Why would he do that? I’d think with a pretty girl around… he’d put YOU in the bed!”
Ama gasped pulling back while the old man belted out another dry laugh. “Macule! Bean and I aren’t—”
“—Well he should anyways!” he continued to cackle. “I mean, I would! ”
Pulling herself very prim and straight, Ama hid her reddening face from Bean as he covered his eyes. Hands on her thin hips and with rangy elbows akimbo, she leaned over the scrawny old man who smiled nearly toothless.
“Macule! What’s the last thing you remb—”
“—Eh?! What? Speak up, woman!”
“MACULE! WHAT’S—” Ama shouted as Bean flinched at her volume.
“—Who?” Macule said baffled.
She reached out with a long finger and poked him. “YOU! YOU’RE MACULE!”
The old man gave an excited hop. “Oh! That’s good to know! Then, who are you, young Mame?”
Bean plugged his ears before she spoke again. “I’M AMA!”
Macule furrowed his wrinkled brow again. “I’m a… what?”
“NO! I’M AMA!” She shouted patting her chest emphatically.
He scratched his bald pate. “Alright. So I’m a… what, now?”
“NO! I’M—” Cutting herself off, Bean watched Ama fan herself with a long palm before looking way from Macule sour-faced. She then glanced at the young man.
“I may be regretting that we saved him…”
Bean winked looking back with fingers still in his ears. “What?”
“Oh! Be quiet, you! ” Ama shoved the thick man with a long arm even as she smiled. “I can’t do anything about the name father gave me—”
She stopped herself again, tapping lips under thoughtful eyes. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Macule. “LUPINA! I’M… LUPINA!”
The old man’s eyes widened as he nodded. “Now that’s a pretty name, Mame!”
Bean heard the shouted words past his plugged ears, and shot Ama a narrow glance. She responded with a reserved grin, but Macule spoke before she could.
“And who’s this stout young man that accompanies the fair Mame Lupina?”
He looked at Macule and his nigh-toothless grin. “BEAN!”
“Ooh! Good! I like beans!” the old man cackled.
Bean looked to Ama, removed the fingers from his ears, and slowly shook his head.
Macule pulled the blanket around his hunched shoulders a little tighter, dragging it through the loose rushes on the floor as he stepped forward. “That reminds me, Mame… I have a terrible hunger! You wouldn’t happen to have anything to eat, would you?”
The wrinkled little man ambled past Ama with happy lurches. She turned and intercepted him smiling after a few long strides from her skirt. “MACULE. WHAT IS THE LAST THING YOU REMEMBER?”
He rubbed his oversized nose. “Oh, something about a pie. I think. But it might just be because I’m hungry… I suppose.”
Macule then looked to the hearth fire and noticed the rocking chair beside it. The old man waved his arms and bobbed towards it. “Ooh! A chair!”
Bean came alongside Ama. “He has no memory.”
“He’s befuddled with age, it happens sometimes.” Ama nodded, folding hands over her waist.
“Is it wrong that I like him better this way, Ama?”
She shook her long straight hair. “Not at all… He’s forgotten everything that made him so insufferable! ”
“Few would disagree that a clean slate isn’t an improvement on him…”
Ama nodded watching Macule pull himself into the rocking chair. “It’s a fresh start for him too, then.”
The young man turned at Ama’s comment, and Macule gave a small cry of excitement as he swayed. Seeing Bean’s relieved face, she reached out and touched his shoulder as she matched his smile.
“Lupina is the name my mother wanted to give me, but father disliked it. It became our secret name for me instead.”
The young man’s dark eyes looked up to her. “It’s a good alias. If we’re going to flee, I’d keep it.”
Her smile widened. “Not an alias, Luken Bean. A fresh start!”
“It’s beautiful, and it suits you, Lupina. I’ll have an easier time saying it than hearing you call me, Luken… ”
“Oh, Luken is a fine given name! I like it. Besides, none will confuse it or you with your uncle outside of the village!”
Bean waved the comment away. “Alright, fair enough. There’s lots to be done if we are to leave at nightfall… Will you need help with Macule?”
Ama glanced at the old man wobbling back and forth contentedly watching the hearth. “It’ll be no challenge to keep him occupied. I’ll gather what I want and think we’ll need inside the cottage.”
Bean stepped towards the door. “Well then, if you need me, I’ll be outside becoming a proficient horse-thief.”
“Yes, we’ve become dangerous fugitives indeed!” she laughed.
He thrust up his arms in jest walking out the door. “Luken and Lupina… Outlaws! Should we pen our confessions now or later?”
The young woman covered her laughter with a palm. “Hopefully never! But I will pen a letter for Old Greywacke before we go to tell him our side of the story! His daughter-in-law can read it to him.”
Bean shook his head disappearing into the cottage yard. “Oh, he’ll love that…”
Ama turned from the empty doorway smiling and flush cheeked as she walked towards Macule in the chair. “I’m afraid that I haven’t any pie, Master Macule. But I do have—”
She sighed reaching the hearth-pot, and spooned milkless rye gruel into a wooden bowl.
A brown hen roosted comfortably upon the folds of the blanket covering Macule’s lap while he snored. The old man slept in the rocking chair by the hearth fire as the window behind the pair faded from a twilight orange glow into the black of a star-filled night.
Ama placed a final log into the wood bin, leaving it full before she gave a final stir to the fresh pot of gruel she had prepared for Macule. Then she walked to the table, collecting some loose papers into a neat pile before sliding them underneath the great ledger book of Lord Suldur.
“Bean, can you pin this on the door spike please?” she said handing him a folded parchment letter.
His calloused hand took the letter for Old Greywacke as he turned for the open door. Ama watched him pin it to the spike that faced the outside, then looked back to the table.
The young man turned to her in the open doorway. “Are you ready?”
She grabbed the forest green wool of her father’s traveling cape lying on the tabletop. “Y-yes. Are you?”
“I am,” Bean said catching sight of her worried eyes as she smiled.
Ama affixed the cape over her shoulders, then pulled Macule’s black riding gloves onto her long hands. “I’m grateful that these are a good fit, it feels like it’s a chilly spring night.”
“It’s clear and cool, but the starlight is strong to show us the way.”
The young woman lifted Macule’s chaperon from the table and shook it. “I hope I can don this, how does father’s old capelet fit you?”
Bean grinned, tugged the brown hood he now wore straight. “Snug and warm, thank you.”
“Good. Now if this fits it’ll be much warmer than a kerchief…” A further shake unbound the black wool in her hands and it fell to its natural state. Bean watched Ama gather long auburn hair and bow her willowy body before sliding the hooded capelet over her face. Rising up, she met his gaze and both of their eyes lingered.
Ama blinked behind disheveled bangs. Standing straight a smile creased her lips, and Bean continued to watch her preen and tuck her hair into the tight hood with a long tapered tail.
“I’ll just be another minute, Bean. Do you want to get the horse ready and I’ll meet you outside?”
He turned on his boots and stepped over the threshold into the night. “Y-yes. I’ll unhitch and prepare him.”
With his exit, Ama finished tucking her hair underneath the black hood. Folding hands at her waist, she fought back a shiver looking at the wattle, daub and timber walls of her cottage for the last time.
“I always thought I would die under the same roof that saw my birth… and I did. I died here a little bit at a time over ten-thousand days, hating and loving this farm. Now those days have been lifted. I’m back to where my troubles began… and there is no devil in Hell that will prod me down that path again!”
She wiped a tear from her eye turning for the door. “I’ve said goodbye to my parents lying at the apple tree, now I leave this place unchained.”
Ama closed the cottage door and her parchment letter to Greywacke swayed impaled on its nail. She reached-up and stopped its motion with a sniffle, then ran a sleeve across her eyes as she collected herself.
“I heard talking,” Bean said behind her in the night.
“I, felt the need to say goodbye… I shouldn’t be so sentimental.”
He patted the nose of the white gelding beside him. “It’s fine… I was worried that Macule might have woken up to give you a final round of trouble in there.”
“No, no… He’s a sound sleeper!” Ama said forcing a smile and facing Bean. She walked down the path in the rising moonlight as he tightened the strings of his capelet against the chill.
“You look like a merchant’s daughter… I suppose that I could pass for your servant.”
Ama ran a hand down the long cornette of the hood to where it ended at her hip with a coy turn, then fiddled with the girdle book dangling off her belt. “Nonsense Luken, I don’t look that fine, do I? If anything I’d think a passerby in the night would think us elopers—”
The young woman winced and Bean gave a hard swallow turning back to the horse. “I-I suppose they could, Ama! We should get going.”
“Y-Yes, let’s get on our way!” she said nodding swiftly and with a newly forced smile.
Bean led the horse and Ama matched his pace beside him under the stars and rising moon. Walking between the cottage and the animal shed the pair exchanged retreating glances until Ama stopped wringing her hands and broke the silence.
“I’m sorry Bean, that was a poor choice of word… I didn’t mean—”
“—Of course not! It’s all right,” the stout man replied fixing his eyes forward. “A-and, you had a good point! Maybe it would make a good ruse if we’re questioned?”
They stepped up the gentle slope to the fields behind the cottage as Ama tried to catch Bean’s gaze. “It would… I’ll try to be convincing if you can—”
“—No actor will be my equal!” the young man coughed out still facing forward.
Ama laughed and Bean finally looked to her as the tension left them. She missed his subtle smile glancing back to the cottage fading into the darkness behind them. He faced forward again before she turned back.
She stroked the ivory mane of the horse beside her. “You and Alabaster seem to be getting along.”
“Either he’s a good horse, or I’m a better thief than I thought,” Bean said guiding the animal around a bend in the path.
Ama ran a hand over the brandy-colored leather of the satchel secured to Alabaster’s saddle. “You’ve packed him well for a first attempt. Were you able to bring your carving tools?”
“All of the important ones… The sack wasn’t as heavy as whatever you put in the satchel.”
“I packed our coins, of course, and that wheel of nut-filled cheese Greywacke traded us for the wood will travel well. The candles and idols—”
The low-hanging branches of the apple tree emerged from darkness on Ama’s left. Reaching out she ran her gloved hand through its pink blossoms and whispered a final goodbye.
Bean looked back at her. “We could stop for a moment, if you like.”
Petals fell as Ama’s hand left the blossoms. “No, that’s alright. I’ve said my piece already.”
“As you wish it,” the young man said giving a tug to the horse’s lead. “I slipped a few things into Macule’s bag too. I see you brought his quills and ink along…”
She grinned. “He won’t be missing them, or the quill knife. I pilfered his blank parchment too!”
“There was still room to stuff your library in there after that?”
Her head nodded above the swaying liripipe of her hood. “Yes, I have them all with me! The old Gazetteer of the Five Kingdoms will be useful. I’ve pondered those water-stained pages since I was a child and want to see what I’ve read about for so long.”
“Wonderful. So now we’re on a pilgrimage as well?” Bean said as the woman caught up to him with a few long-legged strides in her skirt.
“Well, not everything it describes,” she laughed, “but what’s along our way for sure! Januviel’s Histories probably won’t be as useful… The High Hymnals and poetry even less so… But I couldn’t leave them behind!”
Bean turned, a smile on the stubbly face within his hood. “Oh, I’m grateful to have your books and wits on the journey, Ama. You know how I get lost, and I’ve never been a day’s travel outside the village before… Have you?”
Ama shook her head before a goat bleated in the night, drawing her eyes to the animal shed and cottage barely visible in the distance.
“I fed the animals as you asked, they’ll be all right,” Bean said stepping over a rut in the path. “Mind your step.”
She turned back to find him offering a hand over the slim hole. Reaching out she slid her long gloved fingers into his, smiling as his strong grip pulled her safely across.
“I know they’ll be fine; I gave them all to Greywacke in the letter. He’ll find it when he comes for the wood tomorrow—”
“—And Macule! I can hear Greywacke’s laughter already!” Bean said taking hold of Alabaster’s halter.
Ama chuckled with Bean before he guided the horse over the rut with a gentle tug. “No doubt! I’ll miss those big belly-laughs of his, Bean! This will surely become a story he’ll recount to the end of his days…”
Bean nodded and they resumed walking through the dark field. “The animals are generous payment for finding Macule like he will tomorrow.”
“And Greywacke will treat them well.” Ama said looking to the tree line that loomed larger to block the stars as the field’s end approached.
“What did you say in the letter, anyways?”
Ama put up her hands and sighed. “I told them the truth… Not that it will matter to the inquisitors. It’s an honest accounting of what happened, except for the omission about my renewed youth…”
Bean snickered. “So it’s only, mostly an honest account then…”
“Mostly… As a ruse, I told them I was now ogre-touched instead!” she winked.
He snapped his fingers before joining her in a laugh. “Brilliant! That’ll throw the Kingsmen off the trail, and I bet we’ll be a day’s travel into Ozmana before they even saddle a horse in pursuit.”
“It’s not like Macule himself will make the situation any less confused either,” Ama nodded as they reached the edge of the woods.
Bean brought the horse to a stop and they looked at the trail under dark pine branches. “And here, our long night begins.”
“All journeys have to begin somewhere, Luken Bean. I’m ready. Are you?”
“Ready as I ever will be,” the young man said turning to her with a smile before patting the horse. “You should ride Alabaster for awhile, Ama. Come, I’ll give you a boost up!”
She looked at Bean’s extended hand and almost took it before pulling back her gloved fingers. His confused gaze met the sad crescents of her eyes.
“I- I don’t want to be Ama any more, Luken. I don’t simply want her name, I want to be Lupina… Just some village girl a few months your junior. Could you treat me like that?”
Lupina’s dark eyes watched Bean become pale as he forced a nod. “I- I can…. I respect and owe more to your compassion than I feel that I can repay, Lupina. Your kindness when Uncle died, your shelter when his debts stripped the selions of my inheritance from me… Even your tutelage in teaching me how to read…”
The young woman’s eyes glistened in the moonlight. “You flatter me, Luken… I never thought my actions so grand…”
“Your eyes have always been a beacon of hope to me! I saw their resolve when you entered into Macule’s contract on my behalf, and when you told me to make a new life elsewhere. Now I see those same eyes gazing from a comely young vessel, serving her lighter heart… And I’m at war with myself! Should I continue to revere her, or embrace her?!”
Lupina shed a tear. “C- could you… do both?”
“Would… you let me?!”
She reached out with her long arms as another tear fell. “I’ll make you privy to a secret, Luken Bean. Many a day came when old Ama said, if I were a young flower, I think Bean would be the one to make me very happy… Ama may be gone now, but the woman who blossomed in her place so wants to find out if she was right! ”
Lupina stood under the stars and waxing moon, her hands extended as pale Luken failed to find a voice. Her hooded head sagged as he looked away, palms quivering before they faltered in the darkness.
Then his hands grasped hers.
The stout man pulled the tall woman into an embrace. “If we stood before a priest, a solemn oath would pass from my lips to uphold your heart!”
Lupina’s long arms wrapped around Luken like a loving vine. “From mine as well!”
They remained buried in each other’s warmth, excited breaths becoming mist in the cool air of an early spring night. Lupina lifted her neck and looked down to Luken feeling his hands lifting her up by the waist. Feet off the ground she laughed and beamed a smile that he returned twirling her in a circle.
Placed gently on the horse’s back, she ran a sleeve over her eyes sitting sidesaddle. “It doesn’t matter if we travel all night! I’m so excited now, I won’t sleep for days!”
“Then let’s get started!” Luken said tugging Alabaster’s lead.
Lupina grabbed the horn of the saddle and steadied herself upon the horse’s walking gait. Feet dangling down over the white animal’s side, they began their journey through the woods.
“Yes! Let’s start our adventure together! ”
“Together, Lupina! Together like beans in a pod! ”
She laughed. “Lupina Bean! I love the sound of that!”
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.