“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 serfs’ 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,” Marquart said aloud, “are you alive or are you dead? And wherever you are, are you laughing at me now? Damn you!”
Beshu had had ambition. Beshu had gone to war to become large; he had won much, had gained lands, a title, lordship of a small demesne, sons. And he had lost it all again, through that fierce temper he could not control. He had won battles at such a cost that soon no soldiers would rally to his banner. And when men would no longer follow him, he had disappeared, leaving his sons to be raised by an old mate-in-battle.
It was fifteen years now since Marquart had had word of his father Beshu.
Marquart had gone into the world determined not to make Beshu’s mistakes. He had studied the craft of war, he had used his men carefully, he had cultivated the reputation of one who used guile in battle. Men had flocked to his banner.
And for that, Limiakos had cast him into this outer darkness. Alive, and likely to live long, but condemned to smallness.
He ground his teeth and cursed to the empty sky. He thought that no one heard him. But Baralia heard. more tomorrow