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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019 John Alleyn

Chapter 14

More rain came on the following day, enough to turn the road into a sea of mud and dampen everyone’s spirits. Travel was slow, and it was very late in the afternoon before the king’s company reached Verkanta.

The Kanta River flowed through the heart of Ravatheni land. Indeed, the tribal territories could almost be defined as a section of the Kanta valley, meandering over a hundred miles west-to-east, from the edge of the Silent Forest to the confluence with the Súnda River. About in the middle of that section, the Kanta was fed by the Red River, running down from the Iron Hills in the northwest. Above the meeting of the two rivers stood a great, broad hill, and there Verkanta had taken shape.

The original hill-fort had long since been swallowed up by the growing town. All the wealth of the Iron Hills and the rich Kanta valley passed through the place, on its way upstream or down. The river trade had made the Ravatheni one of the richest tribes of the Tremára, and Verkanta was the largest town the Mighty Folk possessed. Close to half a mile across, from the river piers to the great northern gate, the town boasted over six thousand inhabitants.

As soon as the king’s company arrived at the northern gate, it began to dissolve. The king’s followers went with him to the royal hall, at the top of the great hill. Dúvelka and his foremost Wolves went to the hall his clan maintained in the capital. Most of the Wolf-clan warriors went in search of an inn that had room, or some household where they could claim hospitality. Kesdan and his Red Deer did the same.

Drúthan went with his father, promising to come and see Kráva as soon as he could. A few moments later, Lóka vanished, most likely off with Vevára and Kúndan to the hall of the vaitai. Kráva soon found herself alone, driving her chariot through narrow streets, heading for the Sun-clan’s hall where it overlooked the last stretch of the Red River. It was hard to tell time through the overcast, but it was beginning to grow dark when she finally pulled up in front of her destination.

The Sun-clan hall was perhaps seven yards wide and thirty yards long, with sturdy wooden walls and a peaked roof covered with wooden shingles. Its posts were red, and a large yellow solar disk had been painted above the entrance. When they visited the capital, the clan’s foremost nobles stayed there, and it could be a crowded and busy place. Now none of those were in residence; only half a dozen people were posted to keep the hall in readiness. When Kráva arrived, she found one warrior sitting on watch in a little shelter by the front door, looking wet and rather bored in the early evening rain.

The guard rose at once, and Kráva could see it was a woman, armed with spear and shield, wearing a hooded cloak of rough wool against the foul weather. “Kráva!” she called as she approached, and the voice recalled pleasant memories. “What are you doing here? Where is your father?”

Kráva smiled to see Dánia, another shield-woman of the Sun-clan, tall and strong with hawk’s features and sharp brown eyes. She stepped down from her chariot and enfolded Dánia in a quick embrace. “Derga is dead,” she said, and the other woman’s eyes went wide with shock. “Hasn’t any news come from the east?”

“No, nothing. We had a message from Taimar Nár, it must have been well over a month ago, saying that you were traveling but probably would not be coming to Verkanta at all. What happened?”

“Come help me put away the chariot and take care of the horses. I’ll tell you the whole story.”

The two of them led Kráva’s horses around one side of the hall, finding them places in the stables, caring for them and feeding them. The chariot went into a small shed next to the stables, tack and gear hung up carefully in a dry place. While they worked, Kráva told the story of everything she had seen and done since leaving her home, and Dánia’s eyes grew wider and wider. Soon they stood side by side in the warmth of the stables, looking out into the rain and the gathering dark, while Kráva finished her story.

“Heaven and earth!” Dánia exclaimed, when Kráva was done. “I haven’t heard such a tale in all my life. This changes everything.”

Kráva gave her a direct look. “I hope it doesn’t change everything.”

Dánia smiled slowly. “Well, perhaps not. Tá ravami, Kráva.”

“Yes.” Kráva looked back out into the night, and took a deep breath. “On the other hand, I’ve been on the road for days, I’m chilled to the bone, and I stink. I want a bite to eat and a hot bath first.”

“I can help with all of that,” Dánia promised.

---

On the upper level of the hall, a few small rooms had been built to serve as quarters for important visitors. These were luxurious by Tremára standards, with wooden bed-frames, straw mattresses, and sheep-skin blankets. Kráva took one of these that first night in Verkanta, the first time she had slept in an actual bed in months.

Kráva awoke when the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the tiny window. Carefully, she disengaged from the sleeping woman beside her, used a clay chamber pot, and pulled on a light woolen cloak. Then she climbed down the ladder to the ground floor of the hall.

One of the side rooms was reserved for administrative work, when more of the clan’s leaders were resident i...






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