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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 15

Out in the countryside, and in the hill-forts, most Tremára lived in round-houses: a single floor built on a circular plan, with stone or wattle-and-daub walls and steep thatched roofs. Within the ramparts of Verkanta, though, most houses were in a newer style: rectangular halls or long-houses, or rows of square wooden-frame houses, all of them with pitched roofs covered with shingles, many of them with two floors and a loft.

Kráva found the new style strange, but she had reason to appreciate the effect it had on the layout of the town. Instead of having round-houses spring up wherever the builders pleased, like mushrooms after a rain, the streets of Verkanta often approached a rectangular grid. One could get directions and find one’s way without becoming confused.

Besides, there were alleys.

Kráva and Kráskora lurked in a dead-end nook between two rows of houses, half a block from the one dwelling that had their attention.

“Which is Galadan’s house?” Kráva asked.

“Across the street and four doors down,” said the tracker. “The one with grey shingles on the roof, and a wheel-pattern painted on the door in red.”

“Does he live there alone?”

“No, I think he’s married. No little ones yet.”

Kráva watched the house for a long minute, and saw no signs of life or movement. “How do you want to handle this?”

“Hmm.” Kráskora pointed. “See behind that row? There’s an open field, then another warren of small houses, and the eastern gate of the town isn’t far away. If we’re not careful, he’ll run for it.”


“Out the back door.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “You are a country girl, aren’t you? These row-houses often have a second door in the back.”

“Oh. That makes sense. Every creature wants a second way out of its den.”

“That’s the idea. If I were working under the king’s command, I would bring a whole squad of warriors to cover both entrances before I let Galadan know I was coming. As it is, there’s just you and me.”

“Two doors, two of us.” Kráva gave him a hard stare, listening for the sword’s advice, wondering if she could trust him. “I’ll go around the back.”

Kráskora smiled, as if he could read her thoughts. “While I make lots of noise at the front. Go ahead. I’ll wait a slow count of a hundred for you to find a place.”

Kráva left him, not without a backward glance.

As she circled around the end of the row of houses, a sudden thought came to her. She glanced about, and saw her two ravens on a nearby rooftop. As soon as she turned the corner and was out of Kráskora’s sight, she whistled, and the birds swept down to perch on a split-rail fence a few paces away.

“The man I was with, just now. Watch him. If he does anything other than pound on the door of that house, if he tries to leave or go inside, come tell me. Do you understand?”

Yes. Understand.”

Clever birds.”

Well, they can tell men from skátoi and read banners. They must be clever birds indeed.

“All right. Go!”

She hurried to circle the row of houses, while the ravens flew to obey her.

She vaulted another low fence and ran between rows of chickpeas in a garden plot, counting houses from the back. As she approached the house she wanted, she saw a well-worn path leading down from the back door across the open field to her right. She came to a halt, crouching down to hide behind a hedge, where she could watch the path but not be immediately visible from the back of Galadan’s house.

Just in time. She heard pounding from the front of the house, and Kráskora’s raised voice. “Open, in the name of the king!”

It didn’t take long before the back door of the house opened and a man emerged, dressed in plain clothes. He paused for a moment, as if speaking to someone still concealed inside the house, and then turned to hurry away across the open yard. Kráva waited in concealment, listening to the rapid footsteps. Then she leaped into a dead run.

Galadan saw her, and proved surprisingly agile. At once, he turned and sprinted away, catching Kráva off-guard. Then she reached deep and found an extra measure of speed, feeling as if a wind had sprung up to carry her across the finish line in a foot-race. Twenty paces, then thirty, and then she could reach out and seize Galadan from behind.

He twisted and broke free, turning to face her, desperate fear on his face. He drew a sword.

That was a mistake, Galadan.

Kráva did not draw Tarankláva. She wanted the man alive, after all. She ducked under his first wild swing, stepped in close, and caught his sword-hand wrist. Squeeze and twist, and Galadan dropped his weapon with a cry of pain. Then she gathered the folds of his tunic in her right hand, lifted him off his feet, and held him in mid-air without obvious effort.

“Don’t be a fool, Galadan,” she told him. “I don’t mean you any harm. I just want some answers.”

“Heaven and earth!” he crie...

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