Word comes from the south . . .
“I don’t know,” Wulfhilde admitted four days later. She shrugged black-cloaked shoulders. “You have read all that we have here on the Valke lands. The imperial court holds more, including books with spells and accounts of the Great Cold’s wars. I can send south, but I suspect that such books are not permitted to travel.” He sensed her hard look even without seeing her eyes.
Halwende nodded. “Making things burn without using fire arrows or balls of flaming tar hurled by arm-throwers, breaking stone from a distance, twisting animals into weapons, those are not skills I’d want other people to have.” He glanced down at the floor. “I don’t want to have those skills.”
A black-gloved hand rested on his shoulder, then withdrew. “No. It is not a light burden, because of the duties that come with those skills. Gifts are divided for good reason, so that none are overburdened.” She leaned back in her seat. “Although, I freely admit that I wonder at times if the Dark Lord perhaps, mayhap, overestimated my abilities and wisdom.” He heard a little humor in her quiet words, and smiled in turn. “Which doesn’t answer your question, brother.”
He looked up again. “No, ma’am, but now I know not to continue searching for, oh, a bedded-down ovstrala in an empty snowfield.” More than one man had literally stumbled over—or run into—the beasts after a heavy snow. They disappeared, looking like snowdrifts. Only the tiniest tip of a nose revealed what lay beneath the snow blanket. A man could spend hours poking at drifts only to discover that the herd had moved without his knowing it.
She chuckled. “True.” She paused, sitting up very straight. He went on alert. Her voice lowered, pitched to carry only to his ears. “The old emperor . . . is not well. His heir is not experienced. Be wary, brother, when you go to court.”
He inclined toward her. “My thanks for the warning and road word, sister.” The news did not surprise him. Nor did the warning. He’d read a few too many accounts of lords and others who sought to take advantage of inexperienced and distracted emperors.
“Now go. You have duties, I have duties, and I shudder to imagine the rumors if you spend too long in my company.”
He stood and bowed again. “That I will turn miner and begin working on that wine cellar that his grace desires? Scavenger forfend such a fate, honored sister.” He dared to wink before he left. Her chuckles helped ease his mood.
Warm spring air played around the keep. Halwende nodded to the other guard on duty and took his post. Dark soil appeared among the green, plowed and ready for planting after the next Eighth-Day. The new priest of Marsdaam should arrive soon, weather permitting, now that the roads had started to dry. A pair of valke danced in mid-air, talon-to-talon, then wing-tip to wing-tip before separating and diving down, toward the edge of the close schaef pasture. The first flocks had started moving north, along with woodsmen to begin clearing land for pastures and farms. Someone had done laundry, and he shook his head. The amount of work, and fuel, and labor that went into cleaning bedding and clothes . . . No wonder washer women were so strong.
Spring . . . two years until he could wed. The Valke lands, the new ones, should be ready then. Perhaps moving north would not be such a bad idea? Except his father would not allow it, of course. He needed to stay here, in the heart of the lands, not go to a new place away from civilization. Except Valdher had called him to do just that. How, my Lady, how do I do both? He took a long breath and moved to the right, watching the distance, then moving his gaze closer in. He did not expect an answer. She answered in Her time, and his wife would have to learn to accept his dual roles.
An eight-day later, a servant pounded, then caught herself and tapped on the chapel door. He got to his feet and opened the door. He’d been working on a spot on the floor, along with Maltaria. Here, the Lady’s servants served. “M’lord, his grace seeks you and Valdher’s voice. A messenger from the south has come with news.”
“We come,” Maltaria called. The servant bobbed a curtsy and hurried off. Halwende helped his senior to her feet and they put bucket and brushes away, then made their way to Duke Hal’s reception chamber.
“Good.” His grace waved to a man clad in light grey and brilliant blue, the hard blue of the winter sky on a sunny day. “My heir and Valdher’s voice are here.”
The stranger bowed and turned so that he could see everyone in the room. All the senior servants, Master Lothar, the chief steward, and others had crowded into the chamber. “I bring news from the south,” the man began. He opened the large, flat bag hanging at his side and removed a page written in blue ink on creamy white. A heavy blue seal, and a smaller black seal, hung below the page. Halwende glanced to Maltaria and raised one eyebrow. She nodded. They knew the news.
“Hagmar Thorkilson has gone to the Scavenger’s realm. His second son and trained heir, Aglak Hagmarson, called Rothbard, is now emperor. Full court will be held on the Eighth-Day following Yoorst’s spring feast, to honor Hagmar Thorkilson and celebrate the his majesty’s ascension to the throne.” The messenger turned to his grace. “Your grace, your presence and that of your heir are requested at His Majesty’s court at Shwabvale. All titles and claims will be confirmed, and honors paid and received.”
Duke Hal bowed in his seat. Halwende too bowed. “I and my heir shall attend.”
The messenger inclined his head. “I leave this here as proof of the news.” He removed another handful of documents. “And these.” Duke Hal waved his hand, and the chief steward took the pages.
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