Ten Years Later
“Father, tell me the legend of Blackleigh Castle,” Marybeth and Felix’s nine-year-old son, Stephen, asked.
Felix smiled and ruffled his son’s raven black hair. He peered down into the dove grey eyes that he loved so much and asked, “Now why do you want to hear that old tale?” He lowered himself to the ground at the base of a tree, having taken a break from their ride to allow the horses to drink from the stream near Marybeth’s old croft.
“Roger Singer says the castle is haunted and that is why none of us are allowed to go there by ourselves, but Mother goes there all the time to feed her birds and nothing happens to her. Roger says it is because she is a witch with special powers.”
Felix chuckled. “Well, Roger Singer, has a vivid imagination. Much as his father once had when he was but a boy. Oliver went there on a boast from his playmates when he was about your age. It is how he met your mother actually.”
“Uncle Oliver?” Stephen asked in awe, a newfound respect blossoming for his uncle’s bravery.
“Yes,” Felix nodded. “And I was introduced to her through him.”
“So, the legend of the castle is what brought you and mother together?”
Felix stopped in thought for a moment. “I suppose it was. I never thought of it that way.”
“Tell me the story, please, Father?” Stephen begged looking up into his father’s face.
Felix shook his head. “It is a sad tale that does not end well, my son.”
“But it does, Father,” Stephen insisted.
“How do you know if you do not know how it goes?” Felix asked.
“Because it ends with me.”
“With you?” Felix asked confused.
“If the legend is what brought you and Mother together, then it does have a happy ending. It ends with me.”
Felix smiled down at his son, his heart so filled with love that he thought it might burst. “Indeed, it does and a happier ending no man could ever ask for.”
“So, will you tell me the story?” Stephen begged once more.
Felix ruffled his son’s hair once more then pulled him tight against his side, wrapping his arm around his small form. Stephen laid his head on his father’s shoulder and contentedly settled in for the tale. “Long ago in the forest of Arkley lived the fairest of maidens with raven black hair…”
One Hundred Years Later
Arthur Hulford II, Duke of Arkley, stood atop the tower of Blackleigh Castle, overseeing the archaeological excavation below. He breathed in the forest air, taking it into his lungs and holding it there for a moment as if it were the most precious gift on earth. It certainly beats the smell of unwashed bodies, gunpowder, and blood. Thanks be to God the war is over! He could still hear the agonized screams of his men as they were mowed down by the Kaiser’s bullets, one after another.
Arthur had served as an officer on the front lines. As a Duke he could have had his pick of posts but being young and adventurous of mind he had chosen the front. He had had no concept of the brutalities of war, but then again there had never been a war such as The Great War before. A war to end all wars… From our lips to God’s ears. He had then returned home only to find the Spanish influenza ravaging the population. His own dear wife, Charlotte, had been taken from him before the disease was done.
Arthur, in his grief, had thrown himself into the estate. The war had taken its toll on the estate’s finances and they were struggling to maintain it. Many of their servants and tenants never returned from the war, leaving vacant holes where the vibrancy of their lives had once been. Had it not been for the careful industrious nature of his forbearers, Arkley Hall would have already gone under as so many other grand estates were doing. His namesake’s son, Felix Hulford, had been the most industrious of them all.
In an effort to keep the estate going, Arthur had decided to sponsor an archaeological dig at Blackleigh Castle. For as long as he could remember, there had been a great many rumors about the place being haunted by the ghost of a witch. His own ancestor, Marybeth Wright Hulford, had been suspected of such.
As a young man he had greatly enjoyed reading the journals of his predecessors. Felix and Marybeth’s story had been his favorite. He had taken the journal with him into war and it had gotten him through some terrible times. The pages were now stained, dog eared from use, but he still kept it beside his bed to remind him that even in the darkest of times there was always a measure of hope to be found.
Currently, Arthur’s hope was to discover the treasure of Blackleigh Castle. He knew that his ancestor, Felix, had not believed in its existence, but after his wife had died Arthur had needed to believe in something. He had needed to find the tiniest glimmer of hope in the darkness and the legend of the treasure along with the idea that it might save Arkley Hall from ruin had been just that ray of hope. It had given him a reason to get out of bed in the morning and live to fight another day.
Sighing, Arthur turned and descended the stairs. They had been digging for months, but as of yet had not found anything resembling a treasure. They had, however, found a few small artifacts from the castle’s Norman and monastic periods that had been of great interest to museums and collectors in London.
As Arthur wove his way through the excavation site, he offered words of encouragement to his men as he passed. He had done everything within his power to provide the men who had served under his command on the frontlines steady employment upon their return, but it had not been easy. Such concerns had been an important deciding factor in his sponsorship of the dig.
Coming out of the castle, Arthur stood in the doorway and watched his children, James and Mary, running around the glen with the other estate children. He smiled at the sight. After so much blood and death, hearing a child’s laugh was as a tonic to the ears. A shout from behind him caught his attention and he turned back to the excavation.
“I have found something,” one of his men called out. Digging stopped as everyone turned to see what had been unearthed.
Arthur made his way over to the man and peered down into the hole. A mangled lump of tarnished metal lay peeking out of the dirt, where just that morning a large nearly immovable stone had been. “Good work, Corporal Singer,” he clapped his man on the shoulder, praising him for all to hear.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
Arthur kneeled down and ran his hand over the protruding section of the metal. “Well done, Fred,” he praised more softly for the just the two of them. “Did you ever imagine when we were children hearing the stories about this place from your great-grandfather that we would be the ones to find the treasure?”
“Every day,” Fred grinned. He lowered his voice even more, “Beat you to it Artie, now pay up.”
Arthur laughed at his cocky reply. He took a pound from his pocket and handed it to Fred. “You won the bet fair and square,” he admitted grinning.
“I told you I would be the one to find it. The legend disallowed the progeny of the cursed remember?” he teased, delight shining in his eyes.
“How could I forget with you reminding me every day?” Arthur jested back.
Fred bent over and removed the rest of the dirt from the metal pulling out what appeared to be a box made of silver. It was clear that it had seen better times. Fred handed it to Arthur. “It appears to be fused shut with age,” he noted.
“No, I do not think so. It looks as if it were sealed shut on purpose. Someone lacking in skill attempted to ensure that no one would be able to open this box without great effort, or that anything would make its way inside to ruin the contents. See how it is malformed from exposure to great heat giving it a mangled appearance?”
“What could be so important that someone would go to such lengths to conceal it thus?”
“I do not know,” Arthur shook his head and stood motioning for Fred to follow him. They walked out into the sunlight to get a better look. Arthur brushed off the rest of the dirt and examined the seal more closely. Grabbing a hammer and a chisel from a nearby table he set the box down upon a stone placing the chisel along the melted metal seam. He tapped the end of the chisel with the hammer, but it only served to dent the box further.
“Careful, Artie,” Fred whispered breathlessly. His face was alight with anticipation.
Arthur nodded and tried again, this time at an angle, hitting the seam harder. The metal gave way, producing a hole in the misshapen box. Another whack and the lid popped open. Both men breathed a sigh of awe at the sight that lay before them. Nestled within the folds of what appear to have once been silk, lay the most beautiful diamond ring they had ever seen. The diamond was large, set in a wide golden band.
Arthur picked it up and turned it over in his hand, examining every aspect. The light sparked on the inside of the band, catching his attention. “What have we here?” he murmured examining it more closely.
Inside the wide gold band was an inscription in Old English. The inscription translated to, ‘The bearer of this ring is the child of the king.’ In the center it bore a carving of the king’s seal. On the opposite side of the seal was another inscription that translated to, ‘To my beautiful raven I bequeath my greatest treasure.’
“By Jove,” Fred murmured in awe. “A ring such as this would have been priceless in the medieval period. Anyone who claimed to be a child of the king, any king, during that time could have claimed their right to the throne. This ring could have changed the course of history! Do you know what this means, Artie?”
“Yes, it means that we are saved,” Arthur murmured with a teary smile. “It means that Arkley is saved.”
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