Kráva managed to catch about two hours of sleep, once the skátoi had been put to flight. At sunrise, she rose to a quick meal of bread and cheese, washed down with a mug of sour ale. Then she and her companions went out to the stables, to prepare their horses for a fast ride. She barely noticed when a shadow fell across the doorway.
“Why are you in such a hurry to leave?” Kesdan stood at the entrance to the stable, his arms folded, watching the three of them. “You’re all more than welcome to stay.”
Kráva shook her head. “Thank you, Kesdan, but we can’t. My ravens say the skátoi have been put to flight. The last of them are miles away by now, and still running for the border. You don’t need us any longer.”
“Nonsense,” he said gruffly. “We owe you a feast, if nothing else. Not every day a hero comes to our lands.”
Kráva smiled at him, took his hand and leaned close to kiss his cheek. “You’re a good man, lord Kesdan. I know how much you risked, to have us here.”
“Well.” The rough chieftain looked down at the ground between his feet. “We’re not used to having folk from the great clans pay us any attention at all. When they do, it’s mostly to demand tribute or trample our fields on their way to war. I gave up hoping for respect a long time ago.”
“You have it from me, and from my friends.”
Kráva turned back to her horses, taking hold of a bridle to lead them out into the yard. Lóka and Drúthan followed with their own beasts. Kesdan steadied Kráva’s lead horse while she vaulted into the saddle.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “we need to be gone from here before Múrvira King makes an appearance.”
“Why? Are you an enemy of his?”
“Not yet. I’m trying to avoid becoming his enemy, truth be told.” She took a deep breath. “This sword I carry was man-price for my father, and Sky Father has confirmed that it is mine. The king wants it, and has already tried to take it from me once. Better to stay out of his path for a while.”
Kesdan nodded slowly. “Now that is more like what I would expect from high and mighty folk.”
“Kesdan! Kesdan!” A man came running from the direction of the village gate. Kráva automatically soothed her horse when it startled.
“What is it?” snapped Kesdan. “Don’t you know any better than to come running and shouting, when we have guests trying to work with their horses?”
The man stopped, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, breathing hard. After a moment, he looked up to nod at Kráva. “My apologies, lady Raven. Kesdan, there’s an army coming. From the north.”
“Is it skátoi?” the chieftain demanded.
Kráva looked around for her ravens, and saw one of them perched atop the stables. “You! Go and have a look.”
With a loud caw, it obeyed, taking off and turning northward.
“We don’t think it’s skátoi,” said the man, finally catching his breath. “It looks like men. Two hundred or so. There’s no wind, we can’t see their banners.”
“North,” muttered Kesdan. “Sounds like Mírsari. Or it could be the Men of Iron.”
Kráva frowned, a sudden thought coming to her. “If it’s the Angvírai, I wouldn’t assume they’re peaceful.”
“I never assume the Angvírai are peaceful.” Kesdan scowled at her. “Unless you have something else in mind?”
“How did so many skátoi get onto Ravatheni land, unless the Men of Iron let them pass?”
If anything, Kesdan’s face became even more grim. “There’s a bad thought.”
Kráva glanced back to her companions, got a nod from Drúthan and a shrug and a wry smile from Lóka. “I think we’ll stay in your village a little longer, lord Kesdan, if you have no objection.”
“None at all.”
There came a flutter of wings, and both of Kráva’s ravens came to a landing, one atop the stables, another on her right shoulder. “No trouble,” said the larger one. “Friends. Moon banners,” said the smaller.
When Kráva translated for the others, Kesdan nodded firmly. “Mírsari after all. I’ve got an agreement with Róbana, their chieftain. Unless something has gone very wrong, her warriors won’t be marching against us.”
“I still wonder what brings them into the border country under arms,” said Kráva. “Have they been having skátoi problems too?”
“I shouldn’t wonder.” Kesdan peered up at her. “If it is the Mírsari, then the village is safe. You could be on your way, before the king arrives. Assuming he’s coming at all.”
She considered it for a long moment, then shook her head. “I think I would like to meet the Mírsari, and ask them what they know about the skátoi. We’ll stay.”
The Mírsari soon arrived, a column of about two hundred, mostly footmen with perhaps forty on horseback or in chariots. When their banners could be read, they showed a white moon-circle on a deep blue background, with white streamers attached to each standard to promise peaceful intent. They stopped their march in some fallow fields to the northwest of the village, and simply sat down to await events.
Kesdan drove out to meet them, in the only chariot Red Deer clan owned, with Kráva as his charioteer. With them went Drúthan, Lóka and the village’s senior vaita, and half a dozen warriors. Kráva held aloft a Red Deer banner with white streamers, while Drúthan bore one of the makeshift Raven banners.
Róbana turned out to be leading her army, a rather stout woman in fine clothes and a dull-red cloak, her grey hair worn in a long horse-tail braid down her back. Her weathered face was stern, but the crinkles beside her eye...