Morning found Kráva sitting outdoors, sitting on a low bench with her back to a round-house wall.
Anyone watching her would see a young woman, perhaps of twenty summers, her skin a warm tawny-brown, her close-cropped hair as black as the raven for which she was named. She had a strong jaw, an aquiline nose, and sharp brown eyes. Men of the distant cities would not have considered her a beauty; she was too tall and lean, too strong, with little softness about her. Her own people appreciated her well enough, as a shield-woman, an archer, and a charioteer, not an object to be kept ignorant and locked away in some man’s household.
She was a woman of the Tremára, the Mighty Folk, a western branch of the ancient Chariot People. Over a thousand years before, her ancestors had mastered the horse, the chariot, the composite bow, spears and swords of bronze. Thus armed, they had looted, burned, and conquered their way across whole continents. Now the Tremára lived in a wide land between the Blue Mountains and the central steppes, two million strong, with their own language and their own customs. Any people who had lived in that land before were long since forgotten.
Over time, the Tremára had learned to use weapons of iron rather than bronze. They had learned to live by farming and trade, rather than following their herds across the land. They possessed fine art, and gorgeous poetry, and the beginnings of a literary tradition. Even so, they remained a warlike nation, barbarians to the civilized men of the Sea Kingdom or the Sunlit Lands. They were divided into petty kingdoms, tribes, and clans, and they were never easy neighbors even to one another.
Kráva was a woman of the Tremára, of the Ravatheni tribe, of the clan often called Glorious and named after the Sun. Her father’s older brother was the Sun-clan’s chieftain, lord of the rich Iron Hills, one of the wealthiest men in the whole Tremára nation. Kráva and Derga had come to the hill-fort of the Wolf-clan at the summer solstice, to visit some of his old friends and take part in the festival.
Now she sat alone, far from home, bereft of father and purpose, slowly cleaning and doing maintenance on her gear. She felt bone-weary, but she dreaded what might come to her in dreams if she tried to sleep. Besides, her shield-arm still ached as if a bear was chewing on her shoulder.
All around her, the Wolf-clan worked to put things right after the raid. All the fires had been put out, and now men and women repaired the damage. Under the direction of two vaitai or wise-men, healers saw to the hurt and wounded. Others laid the fallen straight in the courtyard, ready for burial as soon as there was time.
Derga had pride of place there, lying in dignity with his cloak spread over him, Kráva’s unbroken sword in his hands, the skátë chieftain’s head still posted beneath his feet. She felt her eyes mist with unshed tears, and blinked them away.
Kráva glanced at the skátë’s sword, clean now and hidden away in its sheath, resting against the bench beside her. She reached out with her good hand to touch the hilt, pleased at the feel of it. She remembered how the naked blade had looked in the light of fire and battle.
She heard footsteps approaching. A possessive impulse led her to pull the sword closer to her, before she looked up to see who was coming.
Two men, both of whom Kráva knew.
Drúthan the Silent was one of old Dúvelka’s sons, a big man, tall and powerfully built. He wore trousers and a colorful tunic, with a short sword at his side and a painted wooden shield slung across his back. Kráva had known him for years; his father and hers had been close and life-long friends. She liked him, trusted his quiet and steadfast competence.
About the other man, she felt more ambivalent. Although he wore fine clothes, carried a harp-case on his back, and wore the iron ring of a vaita, his color betrayed him as not quite belonging to the Mighty Folk. He was lighter of complexion than most, his eyes a startling blue, his hair a sandy brown rather than jet-black. All an inheritance from his mother, a pale foreign woman out of the cold north, who had been captured as a slave. His name was Lóka; he was often called the Clever, and it was not generally meant as a compliment. Still, Kráva and Lóka had history of their own, and she trusted him as well. To a degree.
Kráva nodded to them both. “Sorry if I don’t get up,” she said, her voice rough. &ld...