288. Menhir, a winter’s tale 9

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

Marquart tied his kakai so that it could not reach the hay, and scratched the old cow’s forehead as he passed. She was tame from much hand feeding, but she showed no interest in him. He crossed over and pounded on the door plate. The serf quickly forced the doorplate outward against the banked snow and stepped aside.

Marquart ducked his head and entered. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to a dimness which was relieved only by a tiny fire on the hearthstone in the center of the single room. The serf reset his doorplate to hold in the heat, and near darkness returned. He dropped to his knees before Marquart and put his forehead on the dirt floor. Marquart touched his head and said, “Get up. Who are you?”

“I am Maanit, Sire. Are you the new Lord?”

“Yes, Maanit. Where is your wife?”

“Dead, Lord . . .  Marquart?” Maanit was not sure of the name.

“Is this your son?”

Maanit grabbed the scrawny child at his elbow and dragged him forward. “Yes, Lord,” he said, “his name is Garnin.”

There was fear in Mannit’s voice, and every sentence contained “Sire” or “Lord.” It irritated Marquart, but this was his role now, and accepting it was part of being Lord of the Valley.

Marquart took up the crude, earthen pot that was simmering next to the fire and sniffed its contents.

“Go ahead, Lord,” Maanit said, with steely resolve not to whimper at losing their only meal, “but I have nothing but the cooking pot to serve you with.”

It was a thin soup of vegetable scraps. Marquart put it back by the fire and said, “I didn’t come to take your food.” He passed over a cloth sack, which Maanit opened. A spasm crossed his face, as if he were fighting back tears; as if he had opened a sack of gold. In fact, it was better than gold. The sack was filled with coarse ground meal of the bitter, purple lhitai.

#             #             #

When Marquart remounted and moved on, Maanit and his son stood in the snow, waving until he was out of sight. He had saved their lives. They knew it, and he knew it. But he also knew that their lives should never have been in danger, and his mood was grim as he continued toward the next serf’s dwelling.

Baralia returned unseen to his side. In the months since Midwinter she had rarely left him. Seen or unseen, she had stayed at his elbow, but the dwelling of Maanit, her lost husband, and Garnin, who had been her son, was too painful to enter.

The gratitude of the serfs burned sour in Marquart’s throat. He looked around at the vertiginous world of gray on paler gray and saw no one. No soldiers to do his bidding, no cities to conquer, no great issues to decide. Just empty acres sparsely populated by starving serfs. Not the simpering acclaim from finely gowned ladies, nor the earned acclaim of his peers in arms; just the gratitude of the starving, of men mud-faced and downtrodden.

His own words came back to him, as he had spoken them to Dael, when he had loved her better than he loved her today. “I was large in the world, and becoming larger. Now, this is as great as I will ever be.”

“Beshu, Father,” Marquart said aloud, “are you alive or are you dead? And wherever you are, are you laughing at me now? Damn you!” continued tomorrow

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