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LOCKSLEY CASTLE, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE
MARION PLACED HER HAND on Walter’s shoulder and gave a meaningful squeeze. Her fingers found more bone than muscle beneath his modest doublet, and she flinched, worrying she had hurt him. But Lord Walter of Locksley simply smiled, hermit lord no longer, and wiped an embarrassed tear from his eye.
“I can’t remember the number of years it’s been since I’ve seen the dining hall so lively,” he said. “Sometimes I forget to just sit and take it in, you know? Even at my age, I have to remember to enjoy the little moments.”
It would have been an understatement to say it warmed Marion’s heart. To see Lord Walter thriving again, and his estate flourishing, was to see some great wrong lifted from the world. “You have plenty of years ahead of you,” she said, straightening his collar. “This is just the beginning.”
The dining hall was brightened only partially by chandeliers, and the rest by personalities. The room heaved and swelled like the ocean, mixing together sounds of laughter, dining, and life. It reminded Marion of her youth, when her family would visit Locksley often, when she and her sister would play with Lord Walter’s sons.
It would certainly be good to have new, happier memories of the place.
Only a year earlier, she solicited Locksley’s help for a man named Baynard—an aging local gentleman with an unfortunately common story. Ever since the war tithe was implemented, the Saladin tax, nobles were finding creative ways to minimize their assets—such as evicting their least valuable vassals. People without masters, like Baynard and his family, were still legally subject to pay son vassalus for themselves. This was a typically empty threat outside of a city, but had been increasingly enforced in the last year on account of the war’s thirst for coin. And poor Baynard had been naïve enough to petition Nottingham for assistance, where he might have been thrown into a debtor’s cell if Marion had not intervened.
She recalled her trepidation in approaching Lord Walter on the matter, given their history, but was now so glad she’d taken that chance. Relocating Baynard to Locksley Castle had been a gamble that now paid off a hundred-fold. Despite his reputation as a recluse, Lord Walter was a charitable man with wealth to spare, and his manor was in dire need of tending. Hoarding his coin for decades at the expense of his estate had earned him the nickname of “the hermit lord.” He was thought to be quite peculiar by those too young to remember, but Marion knew better. It was not greed or eccentricity that had closed Locksley Castle’s doors, but heartbreak.
Fittingly, it was compassion that opened them again. Baynard’s family was here now, amongst all the other souls Marion had sent in the last year. Here lived a community of refugees who found new purpose in each other. Locksley Castle had been resurrected, a dozen or more families had been rescued, and the rumors continued to spread across the county.
Lord Walter was the man to see when you couldn’t pay your taxes.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice tight with the sheer gravity of what it meant to say those words to her. “I don’t know why you’ve done this for me…”
She hushed him. He didn’t say her sister’s name, but it was there on the tip of his tongue. Vivian. Instead, she squeezed him tighter. “Please don’t.”
She might have said more. She might have said That was so long ago, or It wasn’t your fault, but there was no point. She had tried so many times over the years, but Lord Walter would carry what happened on his shoulders until the end of his days.
He turned his face away from the hall, his thin muscles tense with the momentary emotion he could never hide.
Vivian’s death was the first to darken Locksley’s door, but hardly Walter’s only ghost. His wife Helen passed slowly from a wet cough a dozen years ago, which began his recession from a public life. His eldest son Edmond was lost to the world, and would hopefully never reemerge. Lastly there was Robin, gone from England to join the war. He was alive and sane, but still the sharpest of Walter’s losses. Marion shared that pain—she would always have a tender spot in her heart for Robin, or rather for the eager young man he had been when they first met, before their two families had been entwined with tragedy. Lord Walter chose to bear the burden of the past with exactly the same enthusiasm that Robin used to avoid it.
“Shall we dine?” he recovered, returning to the mirth of the dining hall.
“Go on without me.” Marion had far more important demands on her attention this night. Lord Walter gave a goodbye and stepped into the bustling rapture of Locksley’s halls. It had become one of Marion’s favorite places, which was one of the reasons she found herself visiting so often of late. It was subtle, but the mood within Locksley was unlike any other manor or castle in England. Part of it was that every single soul here knew how lucky she was to be alive, and to work for a living. The other part, Marion could not define.
“Oh my!” she blurted as she almost tripped over a young boy. She wrapped her arms around the child’s shoulders, but he promptly wriggled free and ran away. Oh my seemed a terribly quaint thing to say, and she flushed to wonder when it had become an instinctive phrase. The boy barreled recklessly down the path between dining tables, his long golden-blond hair flowing behind him. Marion tried to recall his name but it slipped out of her mind, fluttered away, and probably had a very nice life without ever missing being a part of her vocabulary. All she could recall was the boy was an orphan, found alone by a river, and had been collectively adopted by four or five families since.
Children and families. It would be a lie to say this was the most able-bodied group in the world. There were more women than not, children, and elderly. They were, at a cold-blooded assessment, the obvious choices to be exiled from their previous masters’ vassalage. But a percentage of them were men, and a percentage of those men were physically and mentally fit. And a percentage of those capable men were willing to go beyond normal, lawful work to show their gratitude.
And those men were Marion’s other reason for visiting.
* * *
IF MARION HAD TIME to waste she might spend it thinking backward, prodding at her own memories like a loose tooth, to recall the first point she strayed from a truly honest life. She had been raised with a fear of the law and the Lord in equal measure, and as a little girl had been exacting in her obedience to both. But as a lady at court, the granddaughter of the esteemed Earl of Essex, she quickly discovered both the law’s limitations and its failures. Policies that genuinely helped the country often neglected the poorest of its citizens. And in a world of politics ruled by men, charity had somehow become a character flaw.
It may have started off as something as simple as a dilapidated footbridge, kept in neglect by the rivalry of the noblemen on either bank. No one but Marion would ever know who eventually tended to its repair. From there she might recall the next time some accidental political slight had gone unnoticed, and unpunished. The bread crumbs would lead to increasingly daring acts of willful disobedience. She would likely remember the fitful balance of risk and reward, and of maintaining deniability. She’d recall the people who received new seed after being robbed, the problematic raiders who mysteriously disappeared, or a missing delivery of wool blankets that its baron would never miss.
More than anything, she would relive the discovery of what it meant to be female. Despite her “damnably inferior brain,” her kinship to King Richard opened the doors of England’s court just enough for her to learn about the cases being ignored. To be a woman was to wear an invisible cloak, but that loathsome fact was absolutely advantageous in the world of misdeeds. She had learned how easy it was to fake apologies, feign ignorance, to smile wide and let men blame her gender and forget. If she had time to waste, she’d relish it all.
But Lady Marion Fitzwalter was ever a lady without time to waste.
“How did it go?” she asked John of Hathersage, lumbering beside her as they walked away from Locksley Castle. He did an admirable job of keeping up with her overland, despite his size. A decade ago his mass would have intimidated any man, but now the muscle had been reluctantly replaced with something decidedly spongier, and the thick beard of his neck showed more grey than not. Gratefully, neither age nor stuffing could slow down John Little.
“How did it go?” he repeated her question back at her, sing-song and out of breath. “Well it didn’t go … why don’t you tell me again how it was supposed to go?”
“That’s reassuring,” Marion said flatly. “It was supposed to go simply. You were to intercept the Lord Oughtibridge’s convoy between Sheffield and Locksley, drive its grain wagon into the forest and eventually back here, with nobody injured or alarmed.”
“Yes, that,” John replied.
“Yes, that, what?”
“Yes, that.” He laughed. “That’s exactly how it didn’t go.”
Marion’s love for the man could survive any mistake he made, but she cringed to think what could have gone wrong with this job. “Tell me.”
“Best walk. Better to see it.”
It had admittedly been bold in concept, but the beauty was that its consequences should have been nonexistent. Lord Geoffrey of Oughtibridge, a middling lord of well-more-than-middling weight, had spoken openly in Marion’s company about his unsavory tactics in avoiding his taxes. When confronted with an impending assessment from the county’s tax collectors, he opted to temporarily transport several wagons full of rarer foodstuffs to a friendly neighboring lord rather than let them be counted against him.
Since Lord Oughtibridge had no legal recourse to complain about lost goods he claimed never to own, there should have been no risk. Marion had been the one to inform him of the tax collector’s upcoming visit, and she legitimately felt a twinge of guilt that this was an absolute lie. But she simply didn’t have time to linger on such trifles. That time was better spent doing more worthwhile things, and moving food from noble hoarders to people in need was, inarguably, a thing worth doing.
Yet in light of John’s impending bad news, her pace quickened and her breath shortened. She tried to assure herself that John was overreacting, but her stomach seemed to know something she didn’t.
They continued in silence except for a few hurried greetings to the people they chanced upon. A wide-eyed girl named Malory and her friend Maege, followed by a milk-sopped young man named Devon and his wife. While most families tended to stay close to the safety of Locksley’s manor, farther from the castle were the more curious type. Lord Walter’s generosity had also attracted people who sought haven from troubles more immediate than short taxes. There were men here with questionable histories, or outcasts from city gangs who claimed a new calling. As they passed a few millers on the path, hurrying along to the dining hall, Marion could feel the heat from their bodies. They gave wearied hellos that spoke to the difficulty of their day’s labor. She was mortified to realize she did not know either of them by name, since they were honest workers. Honest and useful had become increasingly exclusive characteristics in her friends. If Marion had a few moments to throw away, she might have considered what that meant.
Soon enough they drew upon their destination, an uncomfortable departure from the path against a broken rockface. Their camp was below, hugging under the outcropping, safe from casual onlookers. A hundred thousand responsibilities ago, the young Robin of Locksley had shown her the way to this secluded glen, and she had fancied that it might become a secret hideaway just for the two of them. She had fortunately matured significantly since then, as had her intentions for this place.
But any hope that John’s bad news was exaggerated quickly vanished at the sight of the path down. Not only had they posted a guard, they’d used a man whose very existence screamed go away.
“It’s that bad?” she asked, trying to hide her reaction.
“Ma’am,” was all the sentry said.
The White Hand. Tall and gaunt, his skull pushed through his face, so sunken were his eyes and cheeks. He was always helpful when needed, but nobody seemed to know what the ghost-man did with the rest of his time. He kept himself stolen away under a dark hood, but there was no mistaking the bleached white glove on his right hand. Marion had no doubt that half the stories about it were utter rubbish, and that the remaining half only bore a shred of truth, but even that sliver was enough to give the man his leave.
But she knew his name. Gilbert with the White Hand was one of hers.
Down the steep path, far enough to pretend deniability, a leap away from the politesse and politicking of her public life, Marion came across their camp. John Little whistled sharply as they approached, rousing a dozen of them from their makeshift dinner around a modest campfire. Marion did not need John’s warning to read their body language, each of them hesitant as a child who knew she was due a scolding.
“I’ll be the first to say, I don’t think this was entirely our fault.” Will Scarlet, as defiant as he was immature, was likely to blame for whatever had gone wrong. Where many of this group were outcasts by force, Will and his lover Elena Gamwell were here by choice. They claimed to have once led a major gang in Nottingham, and were both abominably talented at sneak-thieving. The fact that Marion did not bother to chastise his flippant welcome spoke volumes.
“Just tell me…” she said, “… Alan.”
She turned sharply to Alan-a-Dale, a scrawny olive-skinned farmhand who would sooner be caught dead than lying to her. “It started off well,” Alan stammered, wiping a flop of dark hair from his eyes. “At least I thought it did. I’m probably not the best person to ask.”
“You’re probably not the best person for anything,” Arthur cut in playfully. Arthur a Bland’s spite for the world was mostly for show, an intentional disguise against a blindingly loyal heart. “It started off terribly, and it only went worse from there.”
“You said there wouldn’t be any guards,” Elena threw in, cocking her head intently.
“There shouldn’t have been any guards,” Marion responded, mostly because there definitely should not have been any guards.
“Oh, there were guards,” John Little grunted beside her, in a tone that defied contradiction. “What there wasn’ting, was food.”
Marion stared at him.
“He means there wasn’t any food,” Alan translated.
“I know what he means, Alan.” Marion did not break away from John. He simply folded his wide face in half and looked importantly past the campfire, where Marion could see the faint glow of a large hulk beyond. It was no simple wagon, but a strong boxed carriage with sharp iron features and reinforced edges. It was not the sort of thing a middling lord like Oughtibridge would have access to, precisely because it was not his.
They had stolen from the wrong caravan.
“What’s in it?” she whispered, afraid it might awaken.
“Nothing we can eat,” John bellowed, inviting her to investigate. Its rear side boasted a thick hinged door that had been opened with what appeared to be a ludicrous amount of force. Inside lay a dark abyss of possibilities, though none of them seemed better than crawling away and pretending this wasn’t happening. A barrage of questions demanded to be answered about the number of guards, and whether anyone had been harmed, what colors they had worn, and how her crew had even been successful at all.
But those questions would all wait. First she needed to figure out exactly what brand of trouble they had bedded. She eased the carriage’s door open enough to let the firelight trickle therein. Whichever nightmares had been brewing in her head were not as terrible as reality.
“Oh my,” she said, whether she wanted to or not.
There were crates upon crates upon crates of swords. Packed in bundles, stuffed with hay, oil still glistening from the forge. The amber light wormed through their shadows just enough for Marion to recognize their purpose. An obvious flared Crusader’s cross was stamped into each hilt.
“This is not the wagon I told you to steal,” she said, focusing on what was immediate and true.
“Wagon?” asked Will Scarlet with caution. “Singular? This is only the first one.”
Marion’s stomach, against all sober advice, started dabbling in acrobatics.
“What do we do with them?” John Little asked.
“We bury them,” Marion answered instantly. “We bury them and pray.”
Copyright © 2019 by Nathan Makaryk