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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 4

The Wolf-clan’s chieftain had seen many summers. He had silver hair, a long beard, and eyes that had gone weak with time. His chest was still broad, his arms still strong enough to wield spear and sword. Tonight, he wore a tunic in the Wolf-clan’s blue and green, and a heavy brown cloak over his shoulders. Kráva had known him all her life, and knew him to be a quiet and thoughtful man, for all his ferocity in the line of battle. He looked up and gave her a gentle smile, while his son took station at the doorway to watch for any eavesdroppers.

“Kráva.” Dúvelka motioned for her to sit. “I am sorry that I haven’t been able to speak to you before. I owe the child of my old friend Derga every courtesy.”

Kráva eased herself down to sit at the old man’s feet. “I understand. You’ve been busy.”

“Yes.” Dúvelka frowned, hesitating for a moment. “Kráva, how much did your father confide in you on his journey?”

“Very little. I knew there was more to it than a simple matter of visiting old friends. Normally we would have traveled with a band of Sun-clan warriors, but this time he and I journeyed alone. Also, you were not the first high-born man or woman that he met with in private along the way.”

“You were not curious?”

“I trusted my father. If he wanted me to know his business, he would tell me. Since he didn’t, I kept my eyes and ears open, and my lips shut.”

Dúvelka nodded with approval. “Wise. I judge that you need to know more now. I think Derga would agree.”

“Does this have to do with your unexpected guests?”

“What leads you to think so?”

“We never visited Verkanta or called upon the king in his hall,” Kráva said slowly. “Instead, we made a wide circle around the town, visiting the outlying clans. Then the king lied, when he said he came here to help against the skátoi. He could not have arrived so quickly, unless he was already on his way here. To intercept my father?”

“Only to find Derga already dead.” Dúvelka sighed. “You are like your father. He always could see into men’s hearts.”

Kráva almost disagreed, but then she thought of the steel sword, and said nothing.

Dúvelka’s voice fell, until Kráva had to listen closely to hear his words. “Your father was visiting the clans in order to weigh their support for the king. Or for a move to depose the king, and elect another in his place.”

“Since you are telling me this, I can guess where you stand.”

“Hmm.” The old man leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. His face shone, aged and beautiful, in the dim light of the lamp. “Kráva, I have known the king since he was a small child, in his grandfather’s time. I do not think he came to the kingship as a bad man. Yet a decent man can still make a very bad king, and becoming a king can turn a decent man into a very bad one.”

“You think this is happening to Múrvira?”

“I fear it is. Ever since he was elected last year, he has not acted as a good king should. He treats loyal men as if they were rivals, and in so doing, he forces them to become so. He tramples on the freedoms of the tribe’s noblemen and warriors. He takes land, horses, cattle, and goods, beyond what the law allows, by force if he must. He treats with our ancient foes, the Angvírai and the Sudávari, to his own benefit and against the interests of the tribe. I told your father, I do not think it time yet to call for a new king. Yet that time may be coming, if Múrvira does not change his ways.”

“I see.” Kráva looked away from the old man, into the dark shadows in the corners of the chamber. “This explains much that I did not understand.”

“I am sorry to place this burden upon you,” Dúvelka murmured.

“What would you advise me to do?”

Dúvelka sat in silence for a few moments, frowning in deep thought. Finally, he said, “How stands the Sun-clan, now that your father is dead?”

“My uncle Resavíra rules with a firm hand. He and Derga kept no secrets from one another, so no doubt he knows about our mission, and supports it.”

“You would be safe at Taimar Nár, then. Safer than in the king’s hall at Verkanta, at any rate.”

Kráva frowned. “Do you think it will come to that?”

“It would be unwise for you to put yourself in the king’s power. He already suspects you,” said Dúvelka. “I think you would be better off protesting your loyalty from behind the walls of your clan’s fortress, if that is what you choose to do.”

“And if I choose to do somewhat els...

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