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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.
Copyright © 2019 by Nathan Makaryk