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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 8

“Lóka! Lóka!”

The vaita came at Kráva’s call, slowly since he was shepherding three children across the fields. When he arrived, he glanced down at the skátë’s unmoving form and shook his head. “I’m flattered at your estimate of my abilities, but I’m afraid this one is beyond my help.”

“You’re right, I apologize.” Kráva glanced at Lóka’s charges: two boys and a girl, the youngest perhaps of eight summers, the oldest almost a woman grown. “How are they?”

“They’re unhurt. A little frightened.”

“You killed them all,” the girl whispered.

“Yes, we did.” For a moment, Kráva thought about the picture she made for these children, covered in blood, her sword still dripping. Then she remembered what else they must have seen, just that morning. “After what they did to your family, they deserved nothing less.”

The girl nodded firmly, already looking more certain of herself now that the battle was over.

“What is your name?” asked one of the farmers, a wiry older man with a bald head and a silver beard.

“I am . . .”

Thump. A sudden weight settled on her shoulder. One of the ravens sat there, grasping gently with its claws. It fluffed its feathers and made a loud caw.

Just in time, Kráva suppressed the urge to flinch. She held the old man’s gaze, as if the sudden appearance of ravens in her vicinity was something that happened all the time. “I am Kráva, called the Swift, child of Derga and Tívetha. My clan is Sun.”

She saw wide eyes among the farmers, and heard an awed intake of breath from the rescued girl. Raven, they murmured. Raven.

“I am Dóna, called the Sorrowful,” said the old man. “Our clan here is Red Deer. What god sent you?”

Kráva hesitated, but Lóka stepped in. “Sky Father sent her,” he said firmly. “She is of his blood.”

Dóna nodded, not at all skeptical of the claim. “We thank you for the rescue. Are there more skátoi about?”

“Most likely.” Kráva thought for a moment. “Taimar Velkari was attacked by a large band two nights ago. I think we must assume you would be safer behind walls. Is there a village nearby, with a stockade?”

The old man nodded again, pointing northeast. “Red Deer clan seat is about two miles that way.”

“If the skátoi haven’t already sacked the place,” muttered Drúthan.

“We would see the smoke from here,” Kráva pointed out. “I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the attack on the Wolf-clan, but these skátoi seem to be working in small bands, attacking farms. If your clan seat has a stockade, it should be safe enough for the moment. It’s a good place to gather.”

“Right.” Dóna turned to the younger man. “You had better sound the call for muster, son.”

The young farmer nodded, turned away from the rest of them, and lifted a ram’s horn to his lips. He blew one long blast, then three short, all very loud but surprisingly mellow. Then again, and then a third time.

It took time for Kráva and her companions to begin traveling once more. She and Drúthan had both been lightly wounded in the fight, so Lóka cleaned and bound up their hurts, applying a healing spell to the cut along Kráva’s ribs. Then they all took care of their weapons and gear, while Dóna and his family caught the runaway horses. By the time they were ready to set out, more small bands of tribesmen had arrived, following the sound of the ram’s horn.

As they approached the raika, the fortified village of the Red Deer clan, Kráva could see more families and kindreds, converging from all sides. She could also see more columns of smoke rising into the sky, five or six of them, from the northwest around to the east. Everyone knew, by then, that the country was infested with skátoi.

“It’s a big raid,” said Drúthan. “Not even the Angvírai hav...

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