That evening, the company made camp near an outlying village of the Wolf-clan. The villagers had seen none of the skátoi, and had plenty with which to feast the king and his following. Kráva sat with Drúthan beneath a great oak tree, and they stuffed themselves with fresh bread, salt pork, and apples, washing it all down with mugs of exceptionally fine beer. They watched the sun set across fields of wheat and barley, and Kráva felt something like contentment.
Kráva wasn’t certain how she felt about Drúthan. Life as an aregbana, a shield-woman, left little room for interest in men. Her experience with love had thus far been limited to a few brief affairs with other young aregbanai, as was expected among her people. In any case, she had spent most of her life measuring every young man she met against her father, and finding them wanting.
Still. He was young and very strong, and if he wasn’t handsome, he still had an interesting face. He behaved with more maturity than most young Tremára men, never boasting or acting out to draw attention. He was honest and quietly competent. He fought against mortal foes with staunch courage, and had managed to help her even against a nórden when she most needed it. He seemed devoted to her, while making few demands. He was her friend; his father and hers had been friends since before she was born.
I like him. Isn’t that what matters?
When they finished eating and had thrown away the remains of their meal, Kráva stood up and stepped into Drúthan’s arms for a moment. Tall as she was, she had to tilt her face upwards a little to be kissed. He tasted good, like sunlight and rich earth and apples.
Then they walked back to the camp, side by side but not quite touching, before Kráva could be tempted to set aside her oaths.
After dark, an impromptu wrestling tournament sprang up around the king’s campfire. Royal followers and Wolf-clan paired off, two falls out of three, with senior men on both sides watching closely to make sure the affair didn’t get out of hand. The betting was rapid, but remained good-natured. Kráva watched, and applauded when Drúthan won two matches in rapid succession.
At first, Kráva made no attempt to join the wrestling, even though other shield-women in both followings had taken part. Then Kesdan loudly told the story of her battle with the nórden mórë, and suddenly nothing would do but that some of the king’s followers should test her strength.
She watched and listened for a moment, and glanced at the king for guidance, but even with the sword resting under her left hand she sensed no malicious intent. So she set her gear and weapons carefully aside, under Dúvelka’s watchful eye. Then she stripped naked, rubbed dry earth on her hands, and stepped into the informal ring. The wagering grew louder, Wolf-clan and Red Deer folk making outrageous bets on her.
A big man from the king’s following stepped into the ring with her, grinning in anticipation. Nine seconds later, his shoulders were on the ground, and he slapped the dust in defeat. They squared off again. This time it took about six seconds, and shouts of astonishment and glee rose toward the stars.
Naturally, some men were able to convince themselves that the first had been unlucky, or that he had less skill than he believed. Kráva got three more chances to demonstrate otherwise.
Then another cheerful voice was heard.
“I suppose it is up to me to defend the honor of my following,” called Múrvira King.
Kráva had been smiling, flushed with exertion and victory, barely feeling any of her scrapes or bruises. Now she felt as if she had been doused in cold water. She looked across at the king, as he passed his mug of beer to another and began to strip down.
Her first thought was: Heaven and earth, that is a fine figure of a man.
Then she shook herself, and tried to decide if competing against the king was such a good idea. Young as he was, he had a reputation as a wrestler, so this match would not be so easy. Even without Tarankláva in hand, she didn’t trust his intentions if he won. The results might be even worse if he lost.
Never mind. If this was any other man, would you hesitate?
Kráva forced her voice to be relaxed and cheerful, as she called out to Múrvira. “I accept your challenge, arai, but what shall we wager?”
The king stopped to consider, the firelight gleaming on his skin, picking out the swirl of blue tattoos across his broad chest. “You have already won a great deal from my men, lady Kráva,” he pointed out.
She took up a strength-stance with her fists on her hips, giving him a white smile and a challenging stare. “I haven’t won anything but honor, arai. The Wolf-clan have been betting on me, not for me.”
“True.” Múrvira cocked his head, then grinned at her. “I have an idea. Tomorrow night we will camp by Stántari Mórë. If you win, I will see to it that you have a fine animal to sacrifice there, at the high altar, in the name of Sky Father your grandsire. If I win, you will provide an equally fine beast to be slaughtered for the benefit of my household in Verkanta. Either way, your friends and mine will enjoy a feast, and you and I will share in the honor of the outcome.”
A round of approving yells went up from the men and women all around.
“Very good, arai. I agree.”
With that, they stepped into the ring.
At once, Múrvira lost his smile, nothing but watchful calculation in his eyes as he assessed her stance. Then he swept in, quick as a serpent, and Kráva knew at once this would be a challenging match. She countered, then attacked, and her own hands were slapped aside.
The king struck, so fast that Kráva couldn’t quite see how he had done it, and then they were arm-in-arm, their feet scrabbling at the dirt, grunting and straining with effort. Múrvira’s eyes widened for just an instant, as he felt the sheer power in Kráva’s arms, but then he shifted his stance a trifle and it didn’t seem to make as much difference. Kráva pushed and twisted a little to the ...