It was a cold day in Dargon. The new year had brought with it winds from across the frozen forests to the east. While those soon died, the temperatures dropped steadily, clearing the streets as people fled to the warmth of family hearths. Those who went outdoors, hurrying from building to building, did so because of compelling need.
One of the few people on the streets was leading a roan mare. He was a tall young man, just past his seventeenth birthday, his frame hidden underneath a thick woolen cloak. On most days, he would take time to admire the houses along Murson Street, their dark oak framing and shutters contrasting with the white washed daub of the walls. He admired the way they stood together in neat rows, so different from the randomness of his home village. But today his head was bowed within his fur-lined cloak, hurrying past.
His name was Reynaud, a son of Gautier Journai, a minor knight in the foot hills of the Darst Mountains. Yet he was the youngest of three sons and had always felt superfluous, rather like a spare wheel kept in a barn. It was a feeling that was reinforced on his sixth birthday when he learned that he was pledged to the Heart’s Hope Monastery in Fennell. His brothers had watched with sympathy as he rode off on a cart, only accompanied over the paths and rough roads to Fennell by a wool merchant the boy barely knew. It had been a sad day for him.
Despite his initial fear and loneliness, his stay at the monastery had not been unpleasant. The monks had been generally kind when he first arrived, especially Prior Yaroslav, allowing the young boy to become accustomed to the place. Reynaud had been taught his lettering by the master scrivener and the ways of the Cyruzhians by the novice master. He was a quick learn with the pen, and only one partially paralyzed novice was considered a better scribe. When not in the scriptorum, he had worked in the fields that fed the monastery, weeding while younger, then helping to plant and hoe. Despite the dull routine of farming, he had enjoyed its physical exertion, and he had always slept long and hard. He also enjoyed the outdoors, with the sun beaming down on him, and he found that the winters were hard because his work was shifted indoors.
However, Reynaud was not content with being a monk, worshipping the God of the Stevene in quiet contemplation. He found the teachings of the Stevene distant and hard to grasp. Also, the first tome he was given to copy solo was a history of the Great Houses War, and he found himself enamored by the great deeds, especially of the knights at Balkura. While he had enjoyed the work, both in the scriptorum and in the fields, he found himself restless during the prayers. As the years went by, he had found this restlessness and dissatisfaction growing, and he yearned to perform great feats, which he could not do in the confines of a monastery. Then he heard of his eldest brother’s death, and his resolve to leave Heart’s Hope stiffened. He had approached the abbot, and, upon denying the truth of the teachings of Stevene, he was released and returned home.
However, Reynaud had found that life with his family was not much better than with the Cyruzhians. Sir Gautier, who had never had much use for his youngest son, had been crushed by the death of his heir, and had taken refuge in the powerful local mead. Reynaud’s mother spent her time taking care of her husband, while Reynaud’s other brother had taken over the running of the fief. In addition, the lands of the Journais were isolated, far from excitement or power. They were also poor, and the scribe skills Reynaud had learned in Fennell were of little use. So, after less than six months, Reynaud found himself leaving his home for the second time in his life, this time by his own decision and heading north, for the ducal seat.
The first few sennights in Dargon had not been pleasant. With the little money he had been able to bring with him, he had only been able to afford a cheap room off Layman Street, between Main and Travellers. In a short time, he had realized that the only work he could find, either as a longshoreman on the docks or as a minor clerk for a small merchant, was unacceptable to his ambitions. Yet after only one fortnight, his funds had become so alarmingly low that he had feared that he would be forced into either distasteful work or returning to the isolation of his home. Then he had come to the attention of Lord Harald Mertien, castellan of Dessow.
Dessow was a small yet wealthy manor, nearly two bells travel east of the town. It was part of the patrimony of Anabel Mertien, the Baroness of Drugai, the head of one of Dargon’s more powerful baronial families. She kept the manor as a place to stay when she visited her liege, and she had appointed her cousin Harald to see to its upkeep. Since Reynaud had entered into Harald’s service, he had become accustomed to the opulent way in which the manor was kept, although he was in awe of its elegance when he first visited.
Yet, somehow, there was something wrong in Reynaud’s life. He had been at Dessow for over a year, and he had found himself sinking into luxury. His food was plentiful and filling, his bed was no longer a hard wooden plank, and, more importantly, he had been introduced to some of the important people in the duchy. He needed to do no physical work, not even working out with Lord Harald’s men at arms, and his normally thin frame was starting to expand in the middle. He spent the last winter safely ensconced within the warm confines of the manor. And, despite all this, there was a sense of something missing. He often thought about it, hoping that naming the problem would help him overcome it, but he had not yet been successful.
Thus Reynaud found himself riding into town on a cold Deber morning, picking up some supplies for Lord Harald. They were luxuries: a silver necklace with rubies made by Nila the silversmith; two bottles of wine from Lederia; tin boxes of cinnamon and mace from Farevlin; a sack of melons from the south, which had been rather expensively and carefully shipped to Dargon for Harald; a box filled with tiny grytol eggs from near Mt. Voldronnai; and lastly a large number of sable pelts. Lord Harald waited for these items at Dessow, for Baroness Anabel would be arriving in a fortnight to meet with the duke and had ordered a feast to be prepared. The necklace and a warm cloak made with the furs were to be gifts to her from the lord.
After a year of rarely leaving the comfort of Dessow, he found that he was very cold, and he still had over two bells of riding left to reach Dessow. His brief time within the various shops to pick up his items had done little to warm him, so he made for the Spirit’s Haven, the closest tavern. As he hurried along, he looked back at his mount, wishing that he knew more about horses. Despite being born to a knight, he lacked much of a noble’s upbringing, knowing how to ride them but little else when it came to the animals.
As he walked the streets, he was of two minds about this assignment. He had taken it partly as an excuse to leave the confines of the manor, and mostly because he wanted to show Lord Harald that he was worthy of trust. Harald had actually tried to talk the young man out of going, saying that it could be done the next day and it was too cold, but Reynaud insisted. Yet a part of him regretted that. Yes, he had been born in the foothills of the Darst, but he had been so young when he was sent to the monastery. There, while the life had been hard and spartan, it was never terribly harsh, and winter’s fierceness had always been tempered by solid walls and plentiful braziers. Yet the thought of the heroes about whom he had read, whom the elements never bothered, inspired the young man. Thus he looked only for a brief warming.
He shortly reached the tavern. Rather than wait for someone to emerge and see to his horse, he hitched it himself, then walked inside and went up to the bar. The cold had even penetrated the haven of the inn’s walls, forcing the few patrons out of the padded booths and away from the tables, into a knot of benches and chairs around the roaring fire. May, the owner, was one of those by the fire, and she left the group as Reynaud approached the bar, her greeting adding a hint of warmth to the room. Reynaud ordered a hot spiced wine, and she gathered a pewter flagon and gestured him over to the fire. She filled the flagon from a cauldron placed next to the flames, then handed it to the young man and took several copper coins in return. As the heat from the liquid penetrated his gloves and the scent from the spiced wine rose to his nose, Reynaud smiled.
As he began to sip at the wine, he saw May looking at him. He looked back and she said, “I’m sorry, lad, but I can’t remember yer name. But … les see. Yes. Yer the new man at Dessow, straight?”
Reynaud nodded. “Yes, mistress May,” he began, but she interrupted him.
“No need to for the fancy titles here, friend,” she said with a gentle smile. “Just call me May.”
He returned her smile. “As you wish, May,” he said. “My name is Reynaud Journai and I do indeed work for Lord Harald. He sent me in to town for some items. I just stopped in to warm up before returning.”
She looked disturbed by this. “Back? Ya sure?” When Reynaud nodded, May shook her head. “Don’t do it, lad. Stay here tonight.”
Reynaud gave a brief laugh. “It’s only a couple of bells away. I’ll be fine,” he said as he drank his wine.
Once again May shook her head and said, “There’s a storm comin’, lad, and a biggun. Ya shouldn’t be out tonight.”
Still smiling, Reynaud finished his wine and got up. “I come from the mountains, mist–, uh, May. I’ve dealt with snows before.” He handed the mug back to her and went to the door.
“Get indoors if a west wind rises, lad!” she called as Reynaud went out the door.
Reynaud smiled as he flipped his hood over his head and mounted his horse. He was humored by the concern of the innkeeper, despite its misconception. He was confident in his ability to withstand any storm. After all, he came from the mountains.
As he left confines of the town and ventured to the fields that surrounded it, the wind began to pick up. It came from off the ocean, from the west.
The storm started less than half a bell later, the snow appearing from nowhere. He was shocked by its suddenness, having never known one to rise so quickly. He continued onward, however, still confident that the growing storm could not hinder him. Yet as he rode on, and his cloak became saturated, and the sleet turned to snow, doubts began to enter his mind.
The cold, he quickly determined, was the worst part, immense and unending. His cloak hung heavily upon him, its dampness robbing him of warmth. The wind, while stopped by the mass of the otherwise useless cloak, whirled the snow as it howled through the trees, obscuring the road and blowing the flakes under his hood. The sky of the aging day was blocked by the thick clouds of the storm, bringing a twilight darkness on the land bells early. His horse plodded along the track, its head bowed, walking by rote along a well travelled path, the sound of its hooffalls deadened by the snow and covered by the wind.
Eventually, the cold became numbing. His blood felt sluggish, as if it were molasses. He lost track of time and distance. He even forgot why he needed to go forward, just that it was necessary. With the wind stinging his eyes and filling his ears, visions began to form.
He saw his father, tall, proud and indifferent, putting a six year old boy on a cart to go to Fennell, while the boy’s eldest brother, tall, proud and sympathetic, watched. He saw himself, in the robes of a Cyruzhian oblate, listening to the abbot tell of that same brother, drowned off some far shore in defense of the kingdom. He saw his father a few years later, slouching and vacant in his chair wearing a mead-stained tunic, Reynaud’s other brother by his side. He saw himself standing in the streets of Dargon with a dagger bleeding in his hand, one man laying by his feet, a fat man in fancy dress leaning against the wall. He saw his first look at the main hall of Dessow, its dark wood lit by high windows of colored glass and covered by embroidered hangings. He saw himself riding on a cold day, laughing at the advice of a kindly innkeeper.
Reynaud suddenly returned to reality, blinking at the snow that was falling directly on his face, and he was confused as to why he was no longer moving. Then he realized that he was lying on his back, which hurt. He stood up and saw his horse, a darker form in the swirling whiteness. As he approached it, he noticed that it was kneeling, which his numbed mind knew was not right but could not understand why, and he heard its whinnying over the wind. He tried to grip the bridle, but found that he needed to use both hands to force his stiff fingers around the leather straps. He turned around and started to walk, plodding his way through the rapidly growing white cover. The hand which held the bridle went backwards as he walked, then he felt a tug which caused him to stumble slightly as his arm fell back to his side. He knew that the tug was important, but not why, and he continued on. The thought that he might never again be warm flashed briefly through his mind before it and all others were driven away by the wind.
His daze was broken when he saw a line of light in the darkness. He stood and stared at it for a moment, wondering how it made such a sharp bend. Then he realized that he was looking at the edge of a door. The sun must not have yet set, for as he looked, he could see the silhouette of a hut or cabin by the side of the road. May’s advice, to get indoors, came back to him suddenly. He stumbled over to the hut and banged on the door. There was no answer at first, and he banged harder, his knees starting to give out. He was looking down, wondering where the strength of his legs had gone, when it opened.
The door opened just enough for someone to peer out, and Reynaud took a step back in alarm. A short female, her head apparently one with her shoulders, looked at him. Her face seemed oddly distorted, one half of her a flickering red, the other cloaked in darkness. Wild hair, dark mostly but occasionally with the same reddish glow that covered her face, was pushed back by the wind that entered through the opened door, but otherwise she seemed unaffected. She looked at Reynaud, her one eye flashing redly, before turning to look further inside.
“It’s a boy,” she called, her voice barely audible over the moaning of the storm. He was relieved, for when she turned and spoke, he realized that it was an old woman with a hunched back who stood inside. An indistinct response could be heard from within. The woman turned back and looked at Reynaud with an unfriendly grimace on her half-face. She snorted then opened the door, gesturing him inside.
Reynaud stumbled in as the woman closed the door, and he reached up to throw back his hood, only to find that it must have fallen back much earlier. The room was dark but for a fire in the middle of the floor. Beside it lay an old man, his legs stretched out to one side, bundled up tightly against the wind that seeped through the walls, only his wrinkled face showing, lit by the flickering flames. Reynaud turned and looked at the woman as she walked to the man and stood behind him. Her face no longer seemed distorted, just covered with wrinkles. The man gestured to the fire.
“Sit, my friend,” he said, his voice soft in the sound of the wind as it whipped outside the walls. “There is a spare pallet by the door. Please pull it to the fire, sit, and take our hospitality.” The man turned up and handed a wooden bowl to the woman. “Odilia, give the boy some stew.”
The woman snorted again, but lifted an iron pot off the edge of the fire. She filled the bowl from it and handed the stew to Reynaud as he pulled the pallet near to the fire. Sitting on the pallet, he placed the bowl on the ground to remove his gloves. The heat from the bowl was a welcome burning on his frozen fingers, and he leaned over to feel the steam bathe his face. The bowl was filled with a thin gruel, occasional lumps of soggy vegetables floating. He drank it quickly, scooping the vegetables into his mouth with his fingers, relishing the taste that brought memories of the warming room of the abbey and of his home. After finishing his stew, he vaguely heard a voice asking him if he would like some more. He nodded and a pot poured more of the gruel into the bowl. Once again, he quickly ate it down, then fell into a peaceful, warm sleep.
Reynaud awoke wondering why he was lying in chilly and damp clothes upon a poorly made pallet of wool stuffed with straw. He sat up and looked around at a room that was not the outer chamber of Lord Harald’s at Dessow. This was a simple hut made of wattle and daub over a crude frame of wood, rather dark as there were no windows. The floor was bare dirt, rather than the pine planks he was used to. A fire was burning low in the center of the room, not too far from where he lay. Then it came back him, the memory of the storm he had so foolishly tried to travel through. He looked across the fire and saw another pallet and the old man who sat upon it, one leg sticking out to the side, covered in a blanket.
“Greetings, m’lord,” said the man. “I see you are awake. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Jon and my wife,” he gestured to the form lying behind him, “is called Odilia. Let me once again offer you the comfort of our hut.”
Reynaud looked around again. While he was warmer now, and his brain was not filled with the numbness of the night before, he was still sluggish with cold. Memories of the night began to return, seen as through a fog. He had sat by the fire, a bowl of watery stew in his hands. The old lady had opened the door to his banging. He remembered walking through the storm, leading …
“My horse,” he said, suddenly. “Where is my horse?”
The old man looked confused. “Horse? Odilia said nothing about a horse, m’lord.”
Reynaud, his limbs still stiff, arose. “I need to find my horse,” he said.
“M’lord,” Jon said, shaking his head slightly, “the storm still blows. If you left a horse out all night … I’m afraid it will be too late for it.”
Reynaud stopped and thought about it, realizing that the old man was probably right. The wind still blew outside, and he could feel the occasional gust shake the walls, and the air outside the aura of the fire was frigid. In addition, he remembered trying to lead the horse after he fell, but that it did not follow him. It had been on its knees when he last saw it. He cursed his own lack of consideration for the beast, because he realized that it must have been lamed somehow, or its leg broken in an unnoticed hole. No horse could survive a night in the storm if it could not move.
He shook his head, trying to clear his mind from the fog of cold and sleep. “You saved my life. Let me make you some breakfast,” he said slowly. But as he looked around, he could see no sign of grains or roots. He turned to Jon and asked, “Where is your food?”
The old man looked uneasy. “You ate the last when you came,” he said. When Reynaud stared at him, not understanding, Jon pulled the blanket from his leg, which although bound between two wooden splints was still crooked. “It was crushed last Sy by a falling tree, and the healer from the village doubts I will ever use it again. I was unable to work the harvest, and although my neighbors helped, we were barely able to bring in enough for the rent. My son-in-law was supposed to come today with some food and to hew some wood for us, but with the storm …”
Reynaud looked at Jon, who was sitting with his head bowed. He understood what this couple had sacrificed for him. Silently, he turned toward the door, lifting his hood over his head. He knew he should speak, should explain to the old man what he was going to do, but he could not think of the words. Instead, he opened the door and walked out.
The blizzard still blew, although not so fiercely, filling the landscape and air with white. While the wind howled, its ferocity was lessened. It had also warmed slightly, and it was no longer the same bitter cold that had so numbed his mind the night before.
The hut was on the side of the road, and he tried to orient himself, forcing his mind to go over his stumbling to the door the night before. He decided that Dargon was to the left, as was his horse. He looked but could not see it, and he realized that he had only a limited idea of where his horse might be. He took a look at the hut, then ventured off to his left, dragging his feet through the snow which had risen to the level of his upper calf.
The snow cover rose and fell gently, flattening out the landscape, and he only found his horse when his foot slipped on its frozen hide. After he picked himself out of the snow, he began digging, clearing the snow from his fallen mount. It took quite a while until he saw the brown of its hair. The time and effort it had taken to expose that little patch made him stop and think.
He had originally planned to take the saddle bags off the carcass, but he realized that the amount of work needed for that was prohibitive, especially as the small patch he had cleared off was begining to be filled in. Instead, he searched for the bags and, once having found them, cleared them off. The horse lay on its side, and only one bag was available to him, but he managed to undo its straps with his cold fingers. He removed his cloak and lay it on the snow, then moved the contents from the bag to the cloak. A small sack which covered two large spheres was the first out and onto the middle of the cloak, followed by several sable pelts. Then came a wooden box, which Reynaud handled carefully, knowing it contained the grytol eggs. He realized that the bottles of wine were unfortunately contained in the other bag and probably had been smashed when the poor beast fell. The other bag also contained the necklace and the spices, but their metal boxes might have survived; determining that would have required uncovering and moving the whole horse. With a relieved sigh, he picked up the bundle of his cloak and trudged back to the hut.
The woman, Odilia, had woken up while he was out and had placed some scraps of wood on the fire. Somewhere, she had found some grasses and herbs and was busy boiling them. She said nothing, although she looked suspiciously at him. He returned her silence as he walked over, placing his bundle next to her. He unwrapped it and handed about half of the furs to her and then tossed the rest to Jon. They looked surprised and left them were they fell, although Odilia did reach out to feel the fine fur. Reynaud lifted the wooden box, then opened it and removed six small eggs, blue and mottled with greens and yellows. Although he was disappointed to see the shells cracked as the eggs had frozen, he still handed them to the startled woman. Her eyes widened as she saw them, and she carefully laid them one by one on the furs that were on the floor. Reynaud closed the box and set it aside, then raised the sack to remove one of the melons. He handed it, with its light green rind, to the old woman, who handled it just as delicately as she did the eggs. Finally, he handed Odilia his dagger, saying, “In case you need something to cut it with.”
Then he turned to Jon, whose face was also amazed at the food he had never before seen. “Good man, where is the wood?” Reynaud asked.
Jon continued to look at the eggs for a moment before responding. “A tree fell a sennight ago, out beyond the field in back. I have been told by the bailiff that the wood is mine.” He smiled briefly and gestured to his twisted leg, “As payment for the way it crushed my leg.” Then he pointed to a corner of the hut. “I have an ax over there.”
Reynaud nodded and retrieved the ax. It was an old tool with a cast-iron head crudely lashed into a split cleft of an old oak stick. The handle was well worn and smooth, the balance slightly off. Reynaud hefted it silently, nodded again, then went outside.
Even after only the brief time he had spent in the hut, the storm was noticably lessened, with the wind reduced to a whisper from the shrieking gale of the night before. Still, the snow fell heavily and had risen above his knees. He found that he was unable to lift his legs above the surface, and he didn’t as much walk across the field as plow a path through the snow. It was tiring work, and he found that he needed to stop partway across so he could catch his breath. Standing there, the intensity of the silence caused him to throw his hood back and look around.
Reynaud had only seen snowstorms in their aftermath, mostly passing them in the abbey’s warming room with the monks and his fellow students. He was shocked by the muted beauty that was within a storm while it blew. The field was covered with a white blanket, which smoothed any imperfections and was itself only broken by the path he had created from the hut. Tree branches, which on his way to town only the day before had been dark skeletons sticking out at odd angles from rough trunks, were gracefully curved lines of brown, highlighting the thick swaths of snow which bent toward the ground. The air itself was filled with white flakes, as if he was looking through a layer of cotton gauze. Much to his surprise, he saw a flicker of movement, and a small brown bird flew from the sheltering branches of one tree to another.
One winter in Fennell, when he had emerged after a storm to the sun’s light glistening painfully on the clean snow, an older monk had remarked that it was like the love God had for people, too beautiful to look upon; that sort of remoteness was one reason Reynaud could not fully believe in the teachings of the Stevene. However, being in the midst of this storm felt right to him, as if he was surrounded by the world. It was harsh, as the cold in his bones told him, but the beauty was there if looked for.
Then he remembered his task. Not far in the distance he saw a long ridge in the snow, at the edge of the field, with branches poking through the snow cover. Replacing his hood and bending his head, he trudged his way toward it, his legs plowing through the slowly rising snow. At the ridge, he began kicking at it, shaking the snow off of the branches of the fallen tree. He worked his way up and down the tree until the entire length was exposed. Then he took the ax and began to hack the branches off, tossing them to one side in a pile.
When he had a nice pile built up, he gathered a large armful and trudged his way to the hut. He entered and dropped them to one side of the fire. Odilia said nothing but nodded, bringing some closer to the small flames to dry them out slightly before adding them. Jon offered a large slice of the melon, but Reynaud politely declined and went back outside.
He spent the rest of the day at the tree. After finishing clearing off the branches, he used the ax on the trunk, starting with the top and working his way down, hacking large chunks out. He worked his way through the day, not paying attention to what might have been the tolling of bells from the town, muffled by the falling snow. It was hard work, raising the heavy iron head up then bringing it down on the frozen wood. He felt his shoulders and arms, unaccustomed to work by a year at Dessow, burn. Occasionally, he would reach down and fill his mouth with snow, allowing it to melt and flow down his throat. Every so often, he stopped and hauled another armful of wood to the cottage, placing them in the corner which Jon indicated before returning to the tree.
As he worked, he felt a certain peace settle upon him. He felt himself fall into a rhythm, chopping then splitting the wood. The burn in his arms began to fade into the background. When he dropped off his third pile, Jon again offered him some of the meager food, but Reynaud again silently declined. It took him a while to understand why he declined, especially when he realized that he had not eaten anything since the night before. As the ax came down on the frozen wood, he realized that despite the cold, the hard work, the hunger, he was feeling good. Or maybe it was because of the work that he felt that way. It brought him back to the days in the monastery, and how he felt after a long day of working in the fields, or after one of the fasts. And he understood what he had been missing since coming to Dargon.
Reynaud kept on working until it became too dark for him to see. Then he gathered one last armload and walked to the hut. When he reached it, he heard the Dargon bell toll ten times in the distance, and he realized that the snow had stopped. He smiled and went through the door, depositing the wood on the small pile. The old man once again offered Reynaud what seemed to be the last slice of the melon, but again he shook his head, too tired to speak. Smiling, he lay down on the pallet and watched the fire until he fell asleep.
He awoke the next morning to the sounds of pounding on the door. He rolled over to see Odilia walking over to open it. Bright light poured through the door as she squinted to see who was outside.
“Good woman,” came a familiar voice, “I am looking for one of my men. He went to the city before the storm, and probably stayed there during the blizzard. But he is little more than a boy, and he might have foolishly decided to brave the storm. I wonder if you have seen him.”
Odilia glanced at Reynaud, but said nothing. The young man nodded and arose.
“My Lord Harald,” Reynaud called as he went to the door, “I am here.”
When he reached it, he needed to blink, as the morning sunlight gleamed brightly off the snow. He saw the silhouette of his lord, a portly man whose build was covered by a cloak that draped around him. The man stepped inside, showing that his black hair was tinged with grey and his cloak was a dark crimson wool, lined with white fur, with a woolen tunic of red, trimmed in gold thread underneath. Lord Harald Mertien removed his leather riding gloves and laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“My boy, why did you not stay in town when the snow came down?”
“I’m sorry, m’lord. It had not yet started when I left. I found myself caught in the middle of the storm, and I think the cold was beginning to affect me. I was not thinking clearly. When my horse stumbled, I left it there, and started walking. I was lucky in that I found this hut and that these two, Jon and his wife Odilia, took me in.”
“Where is she, Reynaud? Where is your horse?”
“Not far down the road,” he said, pointing down the road toward town. “I’m afraid it’s dead, lord.”
Harald looked at the young man thoughtfully, his meaty fingers stroking his ample chin. “Why did you not return yesterday? The storm stopped shortly after midday. Even with the heavy snow, it should have taken no more than two bells to reach the manor.”
“I couldn’t, my lord. These people,” Reynaud said, gesturing to the couple sitting on their pallet, holding each other and staring at the lord who was visiting their hut, “saved my life, but they were running out of food and fuel. I stayed to cut some wood for their fire.”
Harald’s eyes narrowed. “And food?”
“I, I gave them some of the provisions I picked up for you, my lord,” Reynaud said, bowing his head. “I gave them the eggs and one of the melons. I also gave them some of the furs.” When Harald stayed silent, he continued, “My lord, Jon, the old man, his leg is broken and …”
Harald still said nothing, but looked around the dark cottage. His eyes passed over the small fire, the two old peasants who sat in awe of their new visitor, and before returning to Reynaud. He looked at the young man for a long time.
“Grytol eggs are quite a delicacy, young Reynaud,” he said slowly. “Did you enjoy them?”
Reynaud looked slightly confused, then shook his head. “No, my lord. I … well, I have not eaten since the night before last. As I said, I gave the food to the peasants. I have had plenty to eat before and will have more later. But they …?”
Harald nodded, then turned and looked at Jon and Odilia. “Do you know who I am?”
Jon nodded, saying, “Yes, m’lord. You are Lord Harald of Dessow. We live on your estate.”
Again the castellan nodded. He backed up and gestured outside. Another man entered, large and solid, wearing a cloak of similar color to Harald’s, beneath which protruded the tip of a leather scabbard. “You will need to return the furs,” Harald said to Jon. Then he turned to the new man. “Albin, Reynaud’s horse is laying in the road, towards the city. When we arrive at the manor, gather some men and return here. I want the saddle bags returned, as well as the furs that these two have been given. More importantly, I want the carcass butchered and the meat taken to the nearest smoke house. The meat is to be given to this couple.” As Albin started to leave, Harald said, “Oh, and make sure that when you return today that you bring a ten pound cask of wheat. Come, friend Reynaud. Let us go home.”
As the couple called out their thanks and blessings to their lord, Reynaud ran back to his pallet and picked up the bag which held the other melon then followed his lord outside, slightly confused. A sleigh pulled by two large horses was in the road, with a third man sitting on the driver’s bench. He had seen it in Dessow’s carriage house before, but never outside it, for it was only used when sufficient snow lay on the ground. Albin climbed into the back, as did Harald and Reynaud. As the driver began to shout orders at the horses, turning the sleigh around, Reynaud leaned over and spoke.
“My lord, I only gave one of the melons. Here is the other. Also, the spices and the necklace are in the saddle bags under the horse. I am afraid that the wines were in the same bag, and are probably broken. I am sorry that I gave your other delicacies to the peasants. They were not mine to give.”
Harald took the bag, hefting the melon’s weight, then gave him a smile and patted his knee. “Ah, young Reynaud, there is no need to worry. When you first came into my attention, you told me that you wished to be a great man, and I saw then that you have the seed of one within you, although it has lain dormant since your arrival. By giving those eggs and that melon to the ones who saved your life, and by staying a day longer than necessary to cut their wood, you showed both generosity and gratitude. Both are the signs of great men. You must never forget that.”
“But, my lord,” Reynaud said as the sleigh started to pick up speed on the road to Dessow. “They were but peasants. Those items cost you much to buy.”
Harald nodded. “Yes, they did, but you will be remembered by the farmers around as a man who gave expensive gifts to those who served you well. If I were to punish you, it would affect my reputation adversely. However, I am disappointed at the way you referred to the mare you rode into town on. It shows a remarkable lack of knowledge for a young noble.”
“You referred to your horse as an ‘it.’ She was a mare. I think I must make sure you are better schooled. Albin!”
The big man turned his head to Harald. “Yes, m’lord?”
“When you return from your errand at that hut, you will begin to teach our young man here how to care for horses. And, since he seems to have remembered that physical labor is important to life, perhaps you can make sure that he can swing something other than an ax.”
“Yes, m’lord,” said Albin.
Reynaud thought about Harald’s words and nodded.