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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019 John Alleyn

Chapter 16

The royal residence was Mednákalë, a grand mead-hall, widely known as the largest and finest in all the Tremára lands. It had been built at the very highest point of Verkanta’s hill, its wooden doors facing to the southwest. Its outer walls were rich with carvings and paint: horses seemed to run along the stone foundation, birds flew above, and serpents coiled around every post. Its thatch roof shone like gold in sunlight, and could be seen for miles in every direction. Everything about it spoke of the wealth and power of the Ravatheni tribe, and of the High Grove clan from which its kings were elected.

Kráva and her companions walked up a winding path from the mustering-yard at the center of town, passing a standing stone at each turn. Then a flight of thirty stone steps. At last she stood before the open doors of the hall, polished and intricately carved wood, almost twice her own height. Behind and below her, half of Verkanta lay spread out across the hill’s lower slopes. Beyond that, the confluence of the rivers gleamed in the light of the westering sun.

“I am Kráva,” she announced to the door-wardens, “called the Swift, child of Derga and Tívetha, of the blood of Sky Father. My clan is Sun. With me is Drúthan, called the Silent, child of Dúvelka and Bedónia, whose clan is Wolf . . .”

Kráskora broke in before she could get any further. “Not to mention me, whom you all know. I don’t get a fancy introduction anyway – I work for a living. We need to see the king.”

Kráva gave him a sharp glance, but let it pass.

When her party was admitted to the hall, Kráva looked around with real curiosity. She had not been inside Mednákalë since she was small, there to be presented to the king that was, Múrvira’s grandsire. She remembered golden light, the smells of smoke, cooking meat, and polished wood, and a child’s awe at seeing the roof so far above. Now the place was almost dark, with evening drawing on and the guest-fires not yet lit. She noticed tapestries hanging on the walls that had not been there before, images of the gods and of ancient heroes. Warriors of the king’s following sat at the tables or moved about on their own errands, along with slaves, hired servants, and the occasional vaita. A low rumble of conversation filled the hall.

There was a king’s seat at the far end of the hall, but Múrvira was not currently sitting in it. Instead, he sat at one of the feasting tables, a mug of beer in front of him. Three men stood nearby, engaged in a tense debate, no raised voices but plenty of scowls and angry gestures. Kráva saw Vevára and Lóka standing behind the king, both in their formal white robes, the chief vaita holding a tall staff.

After a few moments, Vevára leaned close to murmur at length in the king’s ear. Múrvira listened, then nodded and rose from the table. Pointing to one of the men, he said, “He is in the right. Divide up the property as he proposes. Don’t bring this dispute back to me, or you’ll all regret it.”

The man Múrvira had singled out suppressed a smile, while the other two looked displeased. All three saluted the king, and then turned to leave the hall.

Múrvira sat down at the table once again, picking up his mug and peering over its edge at the newcomers. “Well. This is not a group of people I expected to see before me, come in peace.”

Kráva glanced at the others, but they seemed content to defer to her. She took up a watchful stance, one hand resting on Tarankláva’s hilt, and began. “Arai, we’ve discovered something about the murder of the Angvírai prisoner, two nights ago.”

At once, a small pool of silence grew, as men and women nearby turned to watch and listen.

“Ah.” The king set his mug firmly down on the table, making a sharp sound. “I suppose you’ve spoken to Galadan.”

Kráva felt one eyebrow rise, but otherwise managed to conceal her surprise. “That’s right, arai.”

“As I should have done before, you will say, and doubtless you’re right about that. Very well. What did you learn?”

Kráva retold Galadan’s story, leaving out no detail except for the name she had for the killer. All the while she watched the king, and listened to what Tarankláva might tell her. She felt no sensation of malice or deception from him, only a faint current of watchful thought, shifting beneath the pressure of her words as he weighed everything in his mind.

Once she was done, Múrvira nodded slowly. “I notice you have been careful not to name the man you accuse,” he said. “Perhaps I can spare you the trouble. I have sent men to arrest Betráxa on his lands, and have him brought here for questioning.”

Kráskora chuckled. “I can see we might not have bothered, arai.”

The king smiled at them. “No, these facts will be of use. It’s just that when one of my close kinsmen rides with me on an important journey, and then mysteriously vanishes right after a man under my protection was slain, I need no further reason to be suspicious. Besides, Kráskora, on that night you reported that the killer rode north. Betráxa’s lands are in that direction, from the standing stones. Where is Galadan now?”

“Under my protection, arai,” said Kráva firmly.

“Good. I assume you will be willing to bring him here, when the time comes to search all of this out before the assembly?”

Kráva nodded.

“Tell him he has nothing to fear from me, now that my anger has cooled. If he comes before the assembly and speaks truthfully, I will reinstate him in my service.”

“I’m sure he will be happy to hear that, arai.”

Múrvira nodded, and seemed to have nothing more to say for a moment. Then he glanced around at all of them, and the others within earshot. “I would speak with Kráva in private,” he said, and it was not a request.

Kráskora immediately nodded and turned to go, as did all the king’s other servants in the area, giving their liege as private a space as he could expect, out in his hall. Vervára also gave a smooth bow, and murmured, “Of course, arai.” Drúthan appeared more reluctant, but Lóka took him aside with a few whispered words. Before long, Kráva and the king were almost alone.

“Please, be seated. This isn’t a formal occasion.” The king gestured to a slave woman who waited in the shadows, sending her hurrying away. “Some wine has come in by the river trade, all the way from the Sunlit Lands. My steward was lucky enough to acquire a few barrels. Sha...






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