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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019 John Alleyn

Chapter 1

Deep in the night, Kráva sensed a presence. She snapped awake, one hand already gripping the knife beside her on the pallet. Then a familiar shape and scent put her at ease for a moment.

“What is it, father?” she murmured.

Derga grunted. “Some trouble outside. Arm yourself, and come.”

He withdrew. Now Kráva could hear voices and movement, from elsewhere in the hall. The Wolf-clan and their guests were beginning to stir. Men and women rose from sleep, seized their own weapons, moved toward the entrance in a confusion of bodies and dim firelight.

From outside, she heard sudden shouts of anger and fear.

Kráva rolled off the pallet, convinced now of the need to hurry. Quickly she pulled on tunic and trousers, hung her blade at her side, strung her bow, and caught up her quiver full of arrows. She emerged from the tiny sleeping chamber old Dúvelka had assigned her, and crossed to the hall’s entrance.

Out into firelight and chaos.

Whoever attacked Taimar Velkari had gained almost complete surprise. They had somehow climbed the path up the hillside, smashed through the gates, and broken into the enclosure, all before anyone could sound the alarm. Now the Wolves streamed out of their round-houses, two or three at a time, only to be cut down by the solid phalanx of foemen in the open yard. Others of the foe ran as they pleased, hurling torches to set haystacks and thatched roofs ablaze.

Kráva got a good look at the enemy and felt a chill of fear in her gut. Not any of the Mighty People, not even any kind of foreigner she could recognize. Not human at all. They stood upright, two arms and two legs, they carried weapons, but their color! Fish-belly pale, corpse-from-the-river pale. They were stocky things, banded with muscle, with heavy jaws full of sharp carnivore teeth.

Almost without thought, she nocked an arrow, took aim, and shot one of the invaders through the throat.

Skátoi, she thought. How are they here? We’re a long way from the Black River, and the Men of Iron in between.

Kráva counted the enemy and saw they were only a few, no more than a hundred. The Wolves could muster enough armed men and women to outnumber the foe . . . but that would do no good unless they could form up and strike together.

A deep shout captured Kráva’s attention. Derga stood firm a few paces into the yard, bawling orders, gathering what few of the Wolf-clan had their wits about them. A burly young man stepped up beside him, then a tall woman with a spear. Order began to appear out of confusion.

This attracted the attention of the skátoi. A band of the creatures rushed forward in close formation, barking a harsh battle-cry, ready to smash the Tremára line before it could take shape.

Kráva glanced around and saw a cart standing beside Dúvelka’s hall. Quickly, she took three steps and vaulted up into the cart, to get a better vantage point from which to shoot.

Derga roared in wordless defiance, setting his feet and holding his shield high.

At the last moment, one of Kráva’s arrows took a skátë in the left eye, sending it shrieking to the ground. That seemed to blunt the enemy’s momentum. When they crashed into Derga’s line, he and his new shield-companions managed to hold their position.

More of Dúvelka’s people entered the open yard, struggling toward the growing defensive line.

Kráva aimed and fired, aimed and fired. There’s a difference between speed and haste, said a memory, in her father’s voice. Even if you must fire quickly, make sure of every shot.

Derga twisted his iron blade in the guts of one of his enemies, then yanked it back out with a shout of triumph. The skátoi line began to waver.

Then it appeared. Bigger than any of the other foes, it wore a thick leather hauberk, and an iron helm crowned with black feathers. Kráva could see nothing of its face, except the red gleam of eyes, and the wicked points of its fangs. In its weapon-hand it brandished a great sword, unlike any Kráva had ever seen, one that shimmered like fine silver in the firelight. It barked orders, and then charged the Wolf-clan line, right where Derga stood trading blows with another enemy.

Father!”

Kráva ignored all the other skátoi, firing three arrows in rapid succession at the massive leader. One missed. The second was deflected by the creature’s helmet. The third struck its shiel...






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