Bheren watched with interest; he was a minor player in these games. Marquart had given him the task, three days each week, of clearing out the breakables from the hall and setting up heavy tables and benches so that each practice session found the warriors threading a new maze of furniture.
They had been working each other for long minutes until all were arm weary and gasping for breath. Now Marquart kicked a bench in front of Conger, forcing him to jump back, then took out Hein with a backhand slash of his sword rod. Conger, however, was too quick and vaulted the bench as it spun across the flagstone floor. His false sword slammed into Marquart’s back as Marquart’s ersatz lancette slashed Conger’s ribs.
They all stopped by mutual consent and laughed. “You’re dead, Lord Marquart,” Conger crowed. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten you in a week.”
“Maybe, but you’re deader!”
Conger grinned and looked ruefully at the weal across his ribs. “Aye,” he admitted. “I’ll be packing snow under my tunic this evening.”
Marquart accepted a hot, moist towel from Bheren and then shrugged into his tunic. He found Dael in the kitchens, supervising preparations for Midwinterfest. He touched her shoulder fleetingly, then said, “Can you leave.”
They moved back to the great hall. Bheren was directing serving boys as they put the tables and benches aright. Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
“None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .”
Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
“Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
“Oh, man stuff.”
“I have visited each warden in his home, but other than Jor, I don’t know much about them. When we crowd them together and feed them wine and ale, they will show me who they are. Tell me what you know already.”
“Jor thinks he is a wolf, but he is really a weasel.”
“Jor I know.”
“Vesulan is the oldest and the most stable. He is not particularly ambitious, but he loves his home. If you had not come along, Jor would have taken over the valley, but he would not have held it. Vesulan would have taken it away from him, not because he wanted power, but because Jor would have been a poor lord. I think Vesulan will take your measure slowly, and eventually welcome you.”
“Does he have children? Heirs change attitudes.”
“Vesulan had two daughters, both married out of the Valley, and has one son, Iolo. When I saw him last he was a stripling but he should be a young man by now.”
“What can you tell me about him?”
Dael smiled. “When I saw him last, he was a boy — and I was just a girl. Our paths hardly crossed, so I can’t even tell you what he was like then. What he is now, I have no idea.”
“You are related to some of these people. Tell me about it.”
“Lord Kafi was Vesulan’s uncle and Jor’s g’father. Dutta is a cousin through a tortuous connection where he is twice removed by direct relationship, but brought back closer by being adopted by his uncle Press when his father and mother died. I was supposed to memorize the details, but,” she shrugged and smiled, “who knew I would meet him again as an adult, far less be the Lady whose husband held his fealty?” more tomorrow