In the stable, the largest of the outbuildings, Clevis was supervising the saddling of kakais two mornings later. The eaves were open for light and ventilation, so that the slope saddles hanging from their tackles threw irregular shadows on the damp floor in the wan morning sunlight. Two more nights of light snowfall had given the Valley an even, sugary coating.
Stable boys and hostlers were guiding kakais under the falls. Kakais are naturally excitable beasts, and they have no love for winter. When the Comanyi came into the world as Gods, they brought kakai and tichan with them. By the time they were driven out, the beasts had become virtually native, except that they still loved the warmth of summer and hated the snow.
Now two stable boys urged Marquart’s favorite mount forward beneath the slopesaddle and, at the well chosen moment, the head hostler dropped the saddle onto its steeply sloping back and quickly adjusted the breast band. The elaborately woven cane and wood saddle formed a small level platform for its rider, with unsocketed lance sections holstered at the right knee, riding stirrups drawn up high and the single mounting stirrup riding low.
There was much good natured chaffing and cursing, which Clevis readily joined. Already he was coming to know these men who would be his particular charge in the months to come.
Hein and Conger came in, yawning and scratching. They had learned already how to stay abed until they were needed, and how to look as if they had been awake for hours when Marquart appeared.
“Come on, Bedbugs, let’s get these out into the yard,” Clevis growled, and the others grabbed reins so that they were already standing at ease before the manorhouse when Marquart came out. He swung immediately into the saddle and the others mounted quickly.
“Did you have a good night?” Hein asked with a fatuous smile. Marquart paused long enough to stare at him until he added, ”Milord.” When Marquart still did not reply, Hein shifted uneasily, hacked and spat, and stared at nothing as even he finally realized that his Lord’s night with his wife was none of his business.
They left the forecourt in a flurry of scattered snow, setting a sharp pace for the first mile to settle the kakai. When they dropped to a walk, Clevis pressed his kakai up beside Marquart, and said, “Hein is an ass. But he is loyal.”
“Loyalty is the beginning of what I need, not the end.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Again?” Marquart asked, and now he smiled.
Clevis grinned back. “Again. I tell him how to act, and he says he understands. But he forgets.”
They rode on for a while. This part of the Valley was heavily cultivated, with fallow fields and clusters of trees coppiced for firewood. Here and there hartwas showed as low mounds of snow, with wisps of smoke coming from their central holes. Ahead the River Gull was made evident by the band of heavy forest on both its sides.
“Marquart,” Clevis said, deliberately leaving off his title, “I want to say some things that you could take wrong.”
Marquart’s face clouded with irritation, but he fought it down because it was Clevis who spoke. He said, “Go ahead.”
“Did you know I was once married?”
“No. You never said.”
“I was young, and not a soldier then. I was a merchant’s son; she was a merchant’s daughter. We had three years together before the blacklung fever took her. After she died, I took up the sword.”
Marquart nodded understanding. Clevis continued, “I’ve served a dozen Septaurs, but none as good as you. I stayed with you because you were both skillful and careful. The men you led always had a soldier’s fair chance at coming through a battle alive.
“And I know what happened between you and the High King.”
Marquart sighed angrily and his fist on the rein tightened. Clevis let the time flow until his Lord shook his head and said, “Continue.”
”I followed you here,” Clevis gestured around them, “because I never met a more complete soldier, or a more complete man. But you are so self-complete that you are in danger.” more tomorrow