Marquart topped out where the trail from Valika reached the crest of the Valthian Mountains and he could see the Valley of the Menhir. For the first time in weeks, he felt a stir of excitement. Whatever else it represented, this land was his, to make of it whatever he could. Once that had been a dream — something of his — but lately events had soured the dream. Now it returned.
This was a low pass, through low mountains, and heavily forested. All the way down to the valley, the trail was much obscured by forest, mostly naked oaks still lightly dusted by last night’s snow. In summer, the forest would be rich with life, but this was the beginning of the hungry time. Deer and renwal would be working their way down to snatch sustenance from the fields of the valley itself, and the wolves would soon follow.
Hein and Conger broke out of the trees behind him and urged their kakai’s up beside his. They had been with him for years now, most recently at the siege of Part Cantor, and had chosen to follow him into the strange exile-by-faint-reward that Limaikos had provided. Clevis came next, riding beside the tichans of the first wagon; the wagon that carried Marquart’s wife.
This was something else that was his — a wife. It was another sign of the permanence of his ascendance to lordship, a permanence that should outlast him if she gave him sons. Marquart did not quite know how to deal with a wife. She was young and pretty, complaint, eager in bed, but the very permanence she represented forced him to diffidence. It wasn’t her fault — Marquart told himself once again — but he missed the simplicity and easy camaraderie that had gone before. If you slapped a whore on the ass, and she didn’t like it, she would tell you so in raw language. You knew where you stood. But Dael was his wife; Dael was forever, and he found himself treating her as if she where made of eggshell porcelain.
The second and third wagon followed into the clearing. Marquart started to shake his head, but stopped himself in time. For Dael, Imbric’s daughter, three wagons of goods was little enough to start a new life in a strange demesne. There were a number of simplicities that Marquart would have to put behind him now that he was Lord Marquart.
For twenty years he had fought in Limiakos’ service, determined to have lands of his own, to replace the ones that he would have had by inheritance if Beshu had not lost them. Now that he had achieved that goal, he found himself nostalgic for the simplicity of a soldier’s life.
Clevis kneed his kakai up to join them, blowing on his hands for warmth. It was well past noon and the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds. A sudden gust of wind pressed the four of them back and tore at the canvas tops of the wagons.
“How long, Septaur?” Clevis asked.
Marquart grunted and said, “Lord . . .”
Clevis shrugged and grinned. There was no rebuke in Marquart’s correction, just a recognition that the old military titles no longer applied. “I would say a few hours to reach the valley,” Marquart continued, “but we will be late getting to the manorhouse.”
“Aye,” Hein grumbled, “late and cold.”
The valley itself was a gray and brown riddle, half obscured by the heavy air. What Marquart could not see, he already knew from long conversations with Imbric. Too many wardens, too many useless cousins and hangers-on, too few serfs to properly work the land. Hunger in the lower ranks; bloated indolence above. And at least one warden who had expected the lordship to go to him.
Limiakos’ gift to Marquart for his victory at Port Cantor. It was a bitter reward for twenty years of service. Still — it was his. more tomorrow