Midwinterfest was in a time of plenty. The tichan and cattle who were least valuable to the herds had been slaughtered as soon as the cold had set in reliably. Frozen carcasses hung in meatsheds all over the Valley — indeed, all over the Inner Kingdom. Hunger would come in late winter, as it always did.
The hardest months of winter are not the first, nor are the deepest the most cruel. As spring approaches, and the days lengthen, winter hangs on, well schooled in snow and ice and cold, and unwilling to relinquish its hold. Then, when the first green of spring is only a month away, comes the dying time.
Just before spring the wardens larders are nearly empty, their meatsheds are down to the last few frostbitten carcasses, dried and leathery and lacking energy. Serfs are tied to their thin fires by lack of strength. Days go by with only a thin soup of old bones and cabbage and a few dried out carrots to spell the difference between deep hunger and true starvation.
On the flatlands of the Valley, skinny wolves stalk skinny deer, dragging them down to a bony and unsatisfying, snarling and contentious feast.
Across those flatlands Marquart rode alone in those last cruel weeks before spring. He and his kakai were the only well fed things on that faded, parchment landscape. Behind him, the manorhouse was lost in the gray of low hanging clouds. Before him was a tenuous finger of smoke, only a fraction lighter than the gray sky. Conger, Clevis, and Hein were out as well, each on his own course, following the advice of Bheren. They were the only ones Marquart trusted to not steal the food they were delivering, nor abuse the helpless serfs.
Dael was deep into the miseries of her pregnancy. Food was no longer her friend; lately, her body rejected everything she ate. Marquart had been supportive at first, then he had left her alone, and now he was just tired of it all.
He had found her with Dutta at Midwinterfest, slightly drunken, laughing just a little too loud for Marquart to accept. It was only the relaxation between cousins that Midwinterfest encouraged, but to Marquart’s narrow view it had looked like betrayal.
The friendship that had begun to grow between him and his wife, now began to fade.
# # #
The structure Marquart had found was not quite a hartwa. It was made of cut logs, not interwoven branches, but it was still circular with one east-facing opening, sealed now with a crude wooden plank that acted as a door in cold weather. The outbuildings were equally crude; a meatshed on sapling legs, and a byre of interwoven branches banked with snow. He dismounted and led his kakai inside the byre. Only one cow remained there, bones showing beneath her loose hide. A thin remnant of hoarded hay hung near the roof, out of her reach.
She was the serfs’ future. Without a cow to pull the plow, there would be no planting when spring came, and without a harvest there would be death. Faced with feeding his cow or his wife, a serf would feed his cow first. City dwellers made a joke of that.
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?” more tomorrow