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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019 John Alleyn

Chapter 7

Drúthan stirred when the morning sun shone in his face. He rose, going to the stream to splash water over his head and refill his waterskin. By the time he returned, Lóka had arisen as well, and was eating a bit of trail-bread from his pack. Through all this, Kráva stood still, leaning against the back wall of the rock shelter, lost in thought.

Drúthan must have seen something in her face. He stopped on the way over to check on the horses, and stared at her for a moment. “Something happened while we were sleeping,” he guessed.

“I could have told you that,” said Lóka, as he tucked away the last of his trail-bread.

“Why?”

“Because of them,” said the vaita, pointing into a nearby tree.

There, perched on a branch, sat two big black birds. They were quite still, shifting only a little from time to time, watching the humans with their bright black eyes.

“Ravens?” muttered Drúthan.

“They’ve been here since sunrise,” said Kráva. “I think they’re here for me.”

“That much is obvious,” said Lóka. “Do you have something you wish to tell us?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps. Someone visited us last night, while the two of you slept.” Kráva took a deep breath, and prepared to face their skepticism. “It was Sky Father. I prayed to him, and he came. He told me he was my grandsire.”

Lóka only nodded. “I thought as much.”

“Wait,” said Drúthan. “That doesn’t surprise you?”

“Oh, no. I’ve known what our friend is for a long time. The only thing I did not know was which of the gods would one day claim her as his own. In my own mind, I had a wager down for Múrkavrio instead.”

Drúthan stared at Kráva as if he had never seen her before.

“How did you know?” she asked.

Lóka shrugged. “As a vaita, I’m trained to read omens and seek visions, to understand the intentions of the gods. I saw something of your parentage a long time ago.”

Kráva frowned, suddenly sure he was not telling the entire truth. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“I could have been wrong,” he answered, in a tone that meant he had never considered that likely. “In any case, that is not something one tells a young woman without very good reason. Far too likely to go to her head.”

Drúthan grunted. “That makes sense. Father tells of a young warrior he once knew. Just convinced he was Múrkavrio’s son. Didn’t turn out well.”

“What happened to him?” inquired Lóka.

“Got killed. Tried to claim the Great Bull’s privileges with another man’s wife.”

The vaita snorted in amusement. “Ah. Well, at least our friend here isn’t likely to meet that fate.”

“Only a worse one, if what I’ve been told about this sword is true.” Kráva turned away from her friends, stepping out under the tree to glare up at the two ravens. “All right, here I am. What do you want?”

Apparently, the birds had been waiting for her acknowledgement. Now the one on the left, the larger one, stirred and bobbed up and down on their branch. “Trouble!” it said, quite clearly.

The smaller bird ruffled its feathers. “Trouble,” it agreed.

“What kind of trouble?”

The ravens seemed to consult with each other, cocking their heads and exchanging a bright-eyed glance. “Skátoi,” said the larger one.

Skátoi!”

“You can make sense of that jabber?” asked Druthan.

“Why?” Kráva frowned. “Can’t you hear what they say?”

“Ravens are capable of speech,” said Lóka, “but I think these birds are only for you to understand. What are they telling you?”

“They’re warning me of skátoi. There must be more of them about.”

Drúthan cursed under his breath.

“Pack up your gear, and get the horses ready,” Kráva ordered, and the two men jumped to obey.

Within five minutes, they had policed their campsite, and were mounted and ready to move. The ravens waited, patiently watching the flurry of activity. As soon as Kráva was on horseback, bow and sword ready for use, they rose from their branch and flew away. Northward.

Lóka frowned. “Kráva, that’s not the right way for Taimar Nár.”

“What of it?” demanded Drúthan. “If there are skátoi about, everyone is in danger, and most of the warriors will be away at the muster. We have to do something.”

“Does that mean staying within reach of the king? Not to mention, there may be more skátoi than three of us can handle.”

Kráva bared her teeth in annoyance. “Go back to Taimar Velkari if you wish, Lóka. I’m not going to run, when people may need us.”

The vaita shrugged, and made no further objection.

---

They rode northward, following the ravens. It didn’t take long to be sure that the birds were leading them; one raven always flew ahead, while the other remained behind to sit on a stone or tree branch and croak at them. With daylight, their horses could walk or even trot without fear of a stumble, so they made good time.

At first, the day seemed pleasant and quiet, no sign of any trouble. Then, perhaps an hour after they set out, they crossed a low ridge and saw a column of smoke against the blue sky in the distance. Without a word, Kráva pushed her horse into a fast canter, and the others followed. One of the ravens made a harsh cry as it flew overhead.

Soon they found a ruined farmstead. Kráva saw three round-houses and a small barn, all built on stone foundations, their wattle-and-daub walls and thatch roofs destroyed by fire.

The horses became skittish at the scents of smoke and blood, a...






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