Locke had had a pretty blessed childhood. He had a sister who loved him and honest and responsible parents. He frequently caught carp in a nearby canal on hot summer's days while his parents and sister worked the field. The carps were only as big as his thumb, but he was more than happy to get what little meat to which they had access.
Their peaceful, happy life came to an end in a disaster. A drought struck all of the kingdom when he was fourteen. It was so bad three of the kingdom's four provinces suffered starvation as crops failed and food stores ran empty. In some cases, entire villages died of thirst as dams and rivers ran dry.
His parents would take him to down in those years to sell whatever they had to sell, often far less than was even really worth the trip, but that was all they had. The women spent much of their time in those years making scarves, handkerchiefs, and just about anything else they could fashion from the materials they could buy or more often find. His sister would walk around the market with her reed basket to sell the couple items they had made since their last trip. If they were lucky, they might be able to buy some decent food with what she got. Often, however, she made only enough to buy scrap linen from the merchants to replace what they had used,and perhaps save a single copper here and there.
The items they made weren't comfortable, they were made from scrap linen, after all, the bits and pieces left over from cuttings, or more often the linen damaged or deemed too rough for use, but they were durable if nothing else, and it was a layer of cloth to keep in a little more heat, which was always welcome, and his sister's needlework skills could make up for what they lacked in proper materials. She rarely didn't sell her stock, but prices were poor, so even if she returned to them with an empty basket, she rarely had much coin in exchange. It was a fair bit more than most people had, however, and together the family made enough to stay fed, which was more than most people could have said in those years.
Locke's favourite pastime had been sitting on a rock under the maple tree by the village entrance nearest his house in the evening, watching as his sister come home. He would run to her when he recognised her and jump into her arms. Somewhere along the way, he had also developed the habit of using the hug to search her pockets for any coins she might have. On the rare days she had nothing, he would be devastated for a few seconds before recovering into mere disappointment. Most of the time, however, she had something, although a fair amount of the time it was only a couple coppers. On those times his hands came back out of her pockets empty and his face melted into disappointment, his sister always smiled at him. She usually picked gooseberries on her way back when they were in season, and she'd pop a handful into his -- which never failed to draw a smile back out of him.
His sister was one of the few truly beautiful females in the village. She had already been a graceful lady when he was merely seven, even though she had been only ten at the time. Matchmakers had started dropping by in that same year. Prior to the drought, the average age of wedding had been 15, and it had not been too uncommon to hear of someone marrying only at the age of 18. Since the drought had set in, however, marriage had become a thing for ever-younger and younger children. It was technically illegal to wed below the age of fifteen, so those marriages were usually betrothals on paper until both were of marriageable age. The many matchmakers had infuriated Locke. He hated how they were trying to steal his sister, HIS sister, away from him. There had been a couple occasions where an agreement and betrothal had been an apparent mere handshake away... and on each occasion he had kicked up such a racket that it had been called off.
Locke had later realised the betrothals had actually not been called off because of his tantrums specifically, in fact, he had eventually understood that a betrothal had never even been an option for his parents, though they were all too happy to use him as a convenient excuse for why it was not possible. The truth was they were quite conservative where marriage was concerned, and were privately very adamant that marriage was not on the table, even betrothal, until their daughter had come of marriageable age. It helped, of course, that betrothals were very new and still quite rare among commoners at that time. It was certainly far more common than a couple decades earlier when no commoner had ever even thought of it. It had always been a thing between nobles. Commoners usually developed crushes as puberty came on, fooled around some, and once they turned fifteen, wed their sweetheart and started a family. Of course, things weren't quite that simple. Parents had a very big say in whether a marriage happened or not. They had to approve of the prospective child-in-law before anything went ahead, and teenage boys ran in circles trying to impress their prospective wife's parents enough that they would agree to a marriage. Since most marriages happened between the children of families from the same town, whom often knew each other's grandparents' life stories, it usually didn't take too much, though daughters' fathers still put on a show of being very difficult to convince.
Things usually got a little more complicated if the daughter was fair. Boys wanted beautiful wives, and would often marry down a little if the woman -- girl, really -- in question was fair enough, and the parents of daughters knew this all too well. So when they had fair daughters, they often tried to hold out for them to be noticed by someone of higher social standing. Locke's parents were no different. As much a part of their reason for holding off on early marriage talk, was that they wanted to give their daughter time to bloom and attract a more gentile suitor's attention. They had no fantasies of her catching a noble's eye, but they hoped she could bag the mayor's son, or perhaps the scion of a moderately well-off merchant's family. Since the parents of daughters wedded their children often for social status, having marriage connections to someone more powerful would also help their son get a better wife. They had no wealth or influence of their own on which to bargain for a wife for Locke, so this was their best chance.
A final consideration for the parents, and for Locke, for that matter, was the dynamic the four of them had between them. Locke's father was an honest and stalwart man, his mother was diligent, loving, caring, and attentive, his sister had not only looks, but also a decent head, and Locke had spirit enough to match a dragon. It was their dynamic and each's efforts as much as their determination, which had let them weather the drought so much better than most people had.
They could only do well for so long, however. Eventually even they were toppled as the rains stayed away for month after month. The ground had dried to bone-ash under the summer sun and the crops had burnt to dust. Locke watched his parents wither as they gave every scrap of food they could get to their children. At least as much of their withering had been due to worry, however, worry for their future and for the lives of their children. His parents had been thirty at the time, but they didn't look a year under fifty, which was severe considering that most people didn't live past fifty, even in good times. Even without the stress, the worry, and the malnutrition, his parents had already stepped into the latter third of their expected lifetime. And their thirty years had been the thirty hard ones of peasants.
On that particular day, it had been two weeks since they'd even seen black bread. Black bread, despite its almost excruciating toughness, was also stable and relatively cheap, well, compared to other baked stuffs, though it was still more expensive than blood in such a drought, and to people that same drought had left destitute. Before the drought, they'd have had black bread and potato soup at least once a week, but now it had become a luxury beyond their means. Despite how much he missed it, Locke had not asked for it since they had last had it. Despite his youth, he knew all too well how bad things were for them.
He had as much stubbornness in him as his father, and his sister was also too aware of their predicament to ask for it. Hans, on the other hand, had already started riding his parents for not having gotten a serving of the charcoal-black bread in about as long as Locke had.
The days marched on mercilessly, and Locke's parents withered more with each one as their food shrunk to mere tree roots, more often than not grilled over the fire rather than boiled for the lack of water.
The drought had eventually broken partially, though even to this day the kingdom was still blessed with only about half the rain it had been used to before the draught. It had eased the worst of it off enough that his family could survive, but until he had enlisted, they had only managed to stay a hair's breadth above utterly destitute.
Locke had enlisted almost literally on his birthday, on the day he became old enough to do so. The first months had been the hardest of his life. He had shared a bed with his sister until puberty had hit just a couple years earlier, and even then he'd still slept in the same room. She had taken care of him almost as his second mother his entire life, and he'd not known a single evening without her presence until he'd left for the army. That had also been why he had had to be so light-footed on the eve of his departure. His sister had noticed his absence soon after his departure despite his best efforts, however, and had run him down. He'd talked her down from trying to stop him, however, and the rest was history.
On this particular evening, Lia's thoughts ran over those years again, and that evening in particular. Despite the longing of parting, she could not deny how proud she was of her brother. Of his determination to do his part to make their lives better.
“I hope he'll come back safe some day..." she whispered, remembering the sweet boy's smile, and he had only been a boy, damn it, no matter what he had said.
He had kept his word, of course, and they lived a far better life now than they had ever lived, even before the drought. His parents had not returned to their happy selves, however. They weren't racked with worry and stress as much as they had been before his departure, before he had started sending back what they all knew had to be the lion's share of his pay, but they missed him with a hollow aching that robed any joy they might have felt at their improved situation.
It didn't help that they felt he had not had to go to the army. The same birthday which had made him old enough to enlist had also made him old enough to marry, and his parents had started looking for a bride. They had had a few options, for Locke was quite decently skinned, and had a desirable personality. His parents had exacting standards, however, and it had meant they had yet to settle on someone when he had left. They had expected to settle on one of the girls from the town, however.
The same talk had started up again after he had received his promotion. Their options were even better now, since even merchants would be happy with a squad jarl son-in-law, especially if they were merchants from a rather rural town like Quarrytown.
Despite Locke's support, Lia still made and sold her needlework, and she often ran into posses of merchant's daughters doing the rounds in the market together. She envied their lack of concerns. Even in this time of drought, they could still afford the luxuries of marketplace stalls that didn't sell food or other absolute necessities. She didn't envy them their possessions, however, only the lack of cares with which they had been blessed. She didn't have any ambitions to marry rich and live a pampered wife's life. She only wished she could spend more time doing the things she enjoyed rather than whatever she could to keep the family going. She did, however, not like the idea of her brother marrying rich and leaving her in the dust as he climbed the social ladder.
His latest message, which had accompanied his latest support, had asked her to spend some of it on herself. He'd suggested so get a scarf and some nice clothes for herself. The sentiment, the thought that he was, even after all these years, still thinking about her, touched her more than the money, or the suggestion she buy clothes itself. She could not do that, however. However much of a godsent his money was, it was not very much. Everything had become more expensive as it had all become rarer and she could not bring herself to spend so much money on luxuries like clothes when they needed every copper to buy food and other necessities. She had since the drought had started only bought two scarves for herself. She had worn her other clothes until they were thread-bare and had then patched them and started all over again. She had a couple sets of new clothes, however, but those had all been made herself. She had managed to let herself buy some cloth and make the clothes herself, at least, but she had only mad ea couple sets, nothing more. She was also looking after those clothes like they were her entire life. She barely ever wore them.
Her thought turned to her parents, who lay in their bed on the other side of the room. She had moved into their room as their health had even futher deteriorated so she would be close at hand to keep an eye on them in the evenings. They were both still awake. Locke Senior was in his mid-thirties, but he had withered away so much he could only just barely still work the plough in the field. His wife wasn't in a much better state. She had just turned thirty, but because of her ailing husband, had had to join him in the field for the last couple years whilst still keeping up with housework, and it was taking a serious toll on her.
Locke Senior was partly ashamed that his condition had forced his wife into the fields, but at the same time he was deeply appreciative of his wife's willingness to help him.
“That kid, Locke... Sigh... If even Lia doesn’t know what goes on in his mind, how can we?” his wife whispered to him now.
He didn't comment on his wife's musings. He didn’t know what to say.
“That year, your sister entrusted you with Lia. Even though we are quite poor, we still managed to raise and care for her. I treated her as my own daughter from the start, but Locke...” she held his hands tightly with a tinge of agitation.
“The children can take care of themselves when they grow up. Let the kids settle the matter between them by themselves.”
“It seems that there is no better way,” she replied helplessly.
Both Locke and Lia never noticed the special bond that had formed between them, probably because it was hard to distinguish it from a familial bond. But, as parents, Locke Senior and Lia could sense the irregularity from Locke’s message and Lia’s reaction. It wouldn’t mean much if it only occurred once or twice, but this had been happening for years on end. They couldn’t help but let their imaginations run wild.
“I heard from the village chief that the nobles do this all the time. Rumours have it that Herr Cardoj’s second wife is his cousin!” Locke Senior muttered in the dark.
“Don’t stick your nose into that! We are commoners. We can't compare ourselves to the nobles!” Tia snapped. Although Locke Senior and Thea got along well, she was usually the one who called the shots as he along with it due to how much he loved her. He also felt that he owed her too much. After all, she suffered through a lot with him.
“Let’s wait until Locke makes it back.” He decided to put the topic on hold. He worried that his daughter would hear them if their voice was too loud.
“Mhmm.” Tia rested her head against his arms and leaned on her side. “Can Locke make it back?”
“Listen to you and your nonsense again...” He gave her shoulder a pat. “Aren’t you aware of our son’s capability? He will definitely make it back alive. Alright, sleep tight and don’t wander in your thoughts. Tomorrow, we still have to go to the fields and harvest the yam.”