“Manfred, are you done packing your bag?” I heard my mother’s voice say as the door to the bedroom chamber creaked open. A smile formed on my face as she walked in. Her brown hair was tucked under her white scarf. Her lips were drawn in a forced smile as her honey-colored eyes followed my figure around the room as I picked things. I looked a lot like my mother, only that I was a few inches taller than her. I was already three and twenty, but I remained small.
“Yes,” I said, picking up the small bag I had packed before walking up to the door. I gave my mother a side hug, letting her squeeze me tight for a silent few seconds. She let me go, putting me at arm’s length before smiling.
“Don’t forget your cloak,” my mum said as I brushed past her and into the common room. It was winter, so the few chickens we had, and our dog were inside. Father and all three of my siblings were out in the market trying to sell the few crops we had managed to harvest in the fall. I had two sisters and a younger brother who was barely seven, but he was working in the fields already.
“You don’t know how thankful I am that you’re doing this,” My mother said, following me to the main door. I slipped on my shoes, giving her a smile as I took the cloak from the hanging pin and draped it over myself. A carriage heading to the Lord’s castle was waiting outside for me. I wasn’t sure if my mother was just paranoid of me leaving or if she was trying to make me stay intentionally.
“Thank you. If I’d gone, I don’t know what would happen to your siblings,” she said, clasping her hands together before closing her eyes. Her brown hair was tucked under a scarf, and her long lashes touched her chicks as her thick brows furrowed as she said a silent prayer. “You’re saving us all,” she muttered, opening her eyes before throwing herself at me again.
Our crops failed and we hadn’t been able to pay our tax. Usually, in a situation like this, a family member would be sent off to the castle to do housekeeping, gardening, or craftsmanship work. My mother was supposed to go—the lord’s former caretaker had just left, and my mother was supposed to replace her, but I was going in her stead.
“It’s okay,” I said, reaching to pull my mother into a hug. I loved her. She always did the best for us, and I would remember her through the next two years that I would be working in the castle. I hugged my mother for a bit more, before letting her go for the last time and slipping through the wooden door.
It was the middle of winter, and the air outside was dry and cool. I hugged myself, shuffling through the snow in the direction of the carriage waiting for me. The sight of the black horse and bored heavy-set driver would have scared people, but I simply smiled at him. He tipped his hat at me as I climbed in. I stared out into the passing scenery as the carriage started moving. The stamping of horse feet and rolling wheels were the only sounds in the air for miles. We passed through the main town, and soon we had made it out into the stretch of unoccupied land that led up to the castle.
Anyone else in a situation like this would be devastated to leave their loved ones for two years, but I was excited. My heart pumped blood that rang in my ears as the dark castle in the distance got closer with every horse step. I hadn’t taken my mother’s place out of the sheer kindness of my soul, though that had been part of it. I also had ulterior motives of my own.
You see, I’m in love with the Lord of Barcombe. I’ve probably been in love with him for five years, but only took notice three years ago. You might ask how I’ve fallen in love with someone I barely even knew or saw. It was through a series of very specific encounters where he showed me his kindness and goodwill.
Lord Evenus was someone of little words and even fewer appearances. All I knew was that was six and thirty now and liked to hunt when he wasn’t away from Barcombe. He hadn’t always been the Lord here, but he had inherited this place from a retired Knight at just eighteen and had made it what it was today.
The town was under his care, but he answered to the king and took frequent trips to fulfill his duties to him. There were a lot of complaints to be made about the village of Barcombe, but everyone stuck around because of one thing—protection. Lord Evenus was a good soldier and kept us safe from the raids coming from the north. Even when he was not here, the small defense team he had trained to be in his stead protected us with their might. Unlike in the other villages, the Lord didn’t pull soldiers from the population by force. Anyone who wanted to enlist to pay a debt could, so families weren’t worried about having their sons taken away from them only to die on the battlefield.
I wrapped my cloak around me more as a memory flashed in my mind. I remembered being in the woods picking firewood and stumbling upon a scene of the lord hunting. I had stood at the ends, watching the large man and his dog as he targeted deer and shot arrows. I had been mesmerized. It was one of the few times I had ever seen him without his face being covered by an overhead cloak. The lord had dark hair and eyes and had a scar that stretched from the base of his forehead, across his face, and under his neck. It was a burn mark—one I could only assume was given to him by near contact with a flare during battle.
I had been so caught up in watching him that I hadn’t noticed when he had turned and stared directly at me.
“Who are you?”
I had jumped, taking a few steps back and then forward—being torn from my innate instincts telling me to run, and the part of me telling me that would be rude.
“I—” I started, but nothing followed. The lord had raised a brow at me, before getting up from his knees. He gestured to the deer he had just shot.
“Have it if you want. I have no use for it. Just sport,” he said, before walking away. His dog, a brown Greyhound followed behind him, leaving me with fresh meat and a red face.
When that happened, I had been nineteen. A series of other events changed that gratitude of that random spring afternoon into love.
I snapped out of my thoughts when the carriage suddenly stopped. I hadn’t realized when we had crossed the lowered bridge and ridden towards the horse stables.
“Get down, Marie will take care of you from here.” I heard from the front. I did as I was told, grabbing my bag before stepping out of the carriage into the cold. A woman who seemed to be in her early fifties was standing a distance away. She waved at me, so I approached her, taking in the smile she gave me when I stopped right in front of her.
“My, you’re a small lad,” she said, chuckling at me. “Come on, I’ll show you around and tell you what to do. The Lord is awake, so I’ll introduce you before you go to bed.”
My heartbeat quickened at the sound of that. I knew the lord was around. He usually was for winters. Most raid campaigns happened in the spring and summer. Noticing I had been standing still for too long and had been abandoned, I hurried to catch up with the lady, following her through an entrance that I only assumed was a back way into the castle.
“It’s simple,” she said as we walked into the kitchen. “You wake up and come grab breakfast from here before sending it to his room,” she said, touching the empty space in the slab that I assumed would be where I would find the breakfast trays in the morning. “You’ll also have to set up his bath, change his sheets, help me do some washing, and serve him his brunch, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea.”
“You’re going to arrange the common room from time to time too. Evenus loves to read but never puts books back,” she said, as she made for the exit of the kitchen. I followed her, holding on to my bag as I let myself take in the castle. So far it was mostly plain and dark. From what I knew, not a lot had been spent in building it. Most of the cost went to the forts circling the village.
“Here’s your room,” Marie said, stopping at a door before pulling it open. I looked inside, noting the small dressing table and bed. There was a stool at one end as well. “What are you waiting for? Drop your bag. I have other things to show you,” she said, making me blink before heading into the room. I dropped my bag and took off my cloak before heading out. She closed the door before leading me down the hallway that led to stairs.
“Sometimes Evenus gets sick. He never listens and goes out without being well dressed, so he catches colds a lot.” The tone in Mary’s voice made it seem like she was talking about a son. It made some sense to me. If she had been serving him for a long time, she must have grown attached in some way.
“We’re going to meet the Lord now,” Marie said as we climbed the stairs. She paused, looking back at me. “How rude of me. I don’t even know your name yet,” she said, pushing strands of her blonde hair away from her face.
“Manfred,” I said, and she nodded, turning away before she continued to climb the stairs.
“Marie,” she said, and I smiled to myself. The driver already told me that. We came up to a corridor lit by a row of candles being held up by candleholders attached to the walls. Maire led us down the hall, stopping at a door before rapping her fisted hand on it. The knock drew a ‘Who is it?’ from the other end.
“Marie,” the lady said, opening the door before she got a response.
“Evenus, the boy is here. His name is Manfred,” she said, stepping aside to show that I was right behind her. I felt my heart get caught up in my throat when I caught Evenus’ gaze. He was sitting on a Recamier sofa with his longish dark hair cupped around his face in waves. His greyhound was at his feet, and Evenus was only wearing a blue top and brown pants.
“Oh, nice to meet you.” Were his words to me.
My gaze shifted to the floor. “Pleasure,” I said, not being able to form a full sentence.
This was really it. I was going to serve the Lord of Barcombe.