Múrvira, king of the Ravatheni tribe, was a liar.
Kráva was not at all certain how she knew this. She had never met the man before, not in the year since he had been elevated to the kingship. She had heard few rumors of him, and Derga had always spoken cautiously of him in her presence. Now that she had seen him, she thought he certainly looked the part of the Tremára warrior-king: handsome, strong, confident, and brave. Part of her wondered what he might be like in the privacy of a dark room.
Meanwhile, Kráva knew she had no great talent for reading hearts. She could make a fine bow and shoot it, ride or drive a chariot, hunt and survive in the wild. People were more difficult.
Still. The moment she walked up to listen to the king speak to Dúvelka, her skin began to crawl.
“We came as soon as we heard the news,” said Múrvira. “Would that we had been here in time to help drive off the skátoi.”
Liar, thought Kráva. Then she had to stop and consider, because she realized she had no rational reason to decide the king was lying.
Or perhaps I do. The king’s hall at Verkanta is about forty miles from here. One day, if you’re willing to founder your horses. More likely two days, even under good conditions. He could not possibly have arrived so quickly after the raid. Unless he knew about it in advance. Or unless he was already on his way here for some other reason.
“It was a bad raid,” said old Dúvelka, standing with his arms folded and a grim expression on his face. “Were it not for a few heroes, you would have found only a smoking ruin here this morning.”
Múrvira nodded in satisfaction. “Heroes indeed, to stand against skátoi and win. Who were these heroes?”
Dúvelka pointed. “Seven of my own people fell in the fight, as did Derga, of the Sun-clan.”
The king glanced over to where the fallen lay, waiting for burial. Then he tossed his reins to one of his henchmen, stepped down from his chariot, and strode across the courtyard to look down at the bodies. Slowly, he walked along the line, staring at each man or woman in turn, his head bowed. At last he came to Derga, leaning close to examine the skátë’s head posted at the dead man’s feet. “Uncanny creatures, the skátoi,” he observed. “Beasts should not be able to walk like men, and wield weapons, and make plans. Who avenged Derga the Mighty?”
“His child, Kráva, called the Swift.”
The king turned away from the dead, to face the living. “Stand forth, Kráva the Swift.”
Suddenly reluctant, Kráva stepped out from behind the crowd of Dúvelka’s folk, her left hand resting on the steel sword’s hilt for reassurance.
King Múrvira’s face did not change much. He might be a young king, but he had already learned the art of keeping his own counsel. Even so, Kráva saw the moment when the king took note of her for the first time, and something helped her see what he concealed in his heart. Appreciation, for a tall, strong, well-made young woman. Admiration, for anyone who could engage in single combat with a chieftain among the skátoi, and defeat her foe. But also, for just an instant before it was hidden away once more, something else she did not understand.
“I am Kráva,” she said formally, “child of Derga and Tívetha. My clan is Sun.”
The king stepped close, setting a hand on Kráva’s shoulder for a moment. She knew the gesture was intended to comfort, but she felt her jaw tense with the effort not to recoil at his touch.
“I know one thing which never dies, the name a man leaves behind him,” the king quoted, his voice slow and grave. “I can offer nothing to salve your grief, but that all men know the name of Derga the Mighty. Even more, now that he has fallen in the front of the line, defending the hall of his host.”
Liar. He mourns not at all for Father’s death.
“Thank you,” was all that Kráva trusted herself to say.
“What is your plan?” Múrvira asked. “Do you return to Taimar Nár?”
“I don’t know. I was my father’s charioteer, taking him wherever he chose to go. Now that he will travel no further in this life, I have no plans. I suppose I’ll go home, and see to his lands.”
“Your lands, now, is it not so? I had no...